The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ordered Poland to immediately suspend its new system of disciplinary proceedings against judges. Failure to comply could result in the country facing daily fines.
In response, Poland’s deputy justice minister has condemned the court for “violating Poland’s sovereignty”, arguing that it has no right to intervene in member states’ domestic judicial affairs.
The ruling is the latest in a long-running legal battle over the disciplinary regime Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government has introduced, and in particular over a new disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court it created through a contested overhaul of the judicial system in 2017.
The Supreme Court itself found last year that the new chamber “is not a court within the meaning of EU and national law”, a ruling that was pursuant to an earlier one by the CJEU. Subsequently, in January this year, the European Commission requested interim measures from the CJEU suspending the disciplinary system until a final judgement on it is made.
The CJEU has now approved that request, finding that “the arguments concerning the lack of a guarantee as to the independence and impartiality of the [disciplinary chamber] put forward in the action for failure to fulfil obligations, appear, prima facie, not unfounded”.
The court accepted the commission’s argument that Poland’s disciplinary system could “cause serious and irreparable harm to the EU legal order”, and that therefore an interim suspension of it is a matter of “urgency”.
In doing so, the court explicitly rejected Poland’s argument that it had no right to intervene because the justice system falls under the competence of individual member states rather than the EU. The CJEU pointed out that “Member States are required to comply with their obligations deriving from EU law”, including “compl[ying] with the principle of the independence of the judiciary”.
The court thereby ordered an interim measure immediately suspending Poland’s disciplinary regime, including all cases pending before the disciplinary chamber. The order remains in place until the CJEU issues a final judgement on this case. If Poland fails to comply, the commission can seek to impose financial penalties.
“The functioning of the disciplinary chamber, whose independence may not be guaranteed, creates the risk of irreparable damage to Polish judges…[and] the the legal order of the EU,” said European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand, quoted by Gazeta Wyborcza. “This is why the Commission asked for interim measures.”
The disciplinary chamber is filled entirely with judges nominated by the the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), another institution overhauled by PiS in order to allow it to be filled with members mostly from or chosen by the ruling party. In its abovementioned ruling last year, the Polish Supreme Court found that the KRS is “not an impartial and independent body”.
If Poland complies with the CJEU’s latest ruling, it would also mean having to suspend even stricter disciplinary measures the ruling party introduced in December, which allow for the dismissal of judges who do not accept the validity of the government’s judicial changes.
Those measures have led to further criticism from the EU and other international organisations, as well as judges from around Europe coming to Warsaw to protest alongside their Polish counterparts. The ruling PiS party, however, argues that the measures are necessary to prevent judges from “undermining” the legal system.
The Polish government has also argued that the European Union and its courts do not have any right to intervene in how Poland chooses to organise its domestic judicial affairs.
In response to today’s ruling, Sebastian Kaleta, a deputy justice minister, tweeted: “The CJEU has no competence to assess or suspend constitutional bodies of member states. Today’s ruling is a usurpative act violating the sovereignty of Poland.”
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.