Poland is on the verge of removing nearly 40 percent of its Supreme Court judges, as a new law, which requires judges to retire at the age of 65 and also expands the Supreme Court significantly, is set to comes into force.
The law, introduced earlier this year by the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), would not only force the instant dismissal of 27 of the 74 judges, but would also expand the court to 120 judges. In effect, this would give PiS power to reshape two-thirds of the country’s Supreme Court.
The Polish government has insisted that its changes seek to reform a corrupt and inefficient system, with judges that date back to the Communist era. Supreme Court judges, however, say that it signals Poland’s slow descent into authoritarianism.
“I don’t want to say that I am terrified,” Supreme Court Judge Malgorzata Gersdorf told The New York Times. “But without a doubt this is not a direction I would like to go in…I think it destroys what has been built over the last 25 years.”
The European Union has accused the Polish government of enacting laws that “interfere significantly” in the judiciary, and has given it one month to answer its concerns. If the EU finds that Poland is in breach of EU law, then it could impose daily fines on the country.
“These measures undermine the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges,” the European Commission said in a press release on Monday. “Thereby Poland fails to fulfill its obligations under Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union read in connection with Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.”
In December, the EU also imposed unprecedented disciplinary measures on Poland for other judicial reforms carried out by the PiS, including the power of the president to prolong the mandate of Supreme Court Justices. The Polish government also plans to introduce a “disciplinary chamber,” which will allow the government to re-open any case in the past 20 years and have it reviewed by new, government-friendly judges.
The judicial reforms are just the latest examples of Poland’s worrying slide towards far-right authoritarianism. Under party head Jarosław Kaczyński and Prime Minister Beata Szydło, PiS has moved not only to consolidate control over the judiciary but the media as well. The party also tried to institute a near-total ban on abortion, but that failed after thousands took the streets in opposition — although PiS did curtail access to emergency contraception.
The far-right stance of PiS has also made it extremely popular with white supremacists. In November, more than 60,000 people gathered, including racists from Slovakia, Hungary, and Spain, for a far-right march with messages like “Europe Will Be White” and “Clean Blood.”