A top European Union legal advisor argued in an opinion Thursday that a Polish regime for disciplining judges is contrary to EU law.
It is the latest development in an ongoing dispute between the 27-member bloc and the conservative, populist ruling party in Poland, which has reshaped the country’s justice system in a way that has given the ruling authorities new powers over the courts.
The party, Law and Justice, says it seeks to reform an inefficient and corrupt justice system. Critics, however, see that argument as a pretext for seizing control over the courts in an undemocratic way.
Law and Justice in 2017 created a new body — the Disciplinary Chamber — at the Supreme Court with the power to discipline judges, including those of the lower courts.
Many judges in Poland fear that the chamber is meant as a tool to pressure judges to issue rulings that favor the ruling authorities. To date, while the party has taken control over the highest courts, many lower court judges continue to show their independence. Some have issued rulings against government officials or interests.
Advocate General Evgeni Tanchev recommended that the European Court of Justice — the EU’s highest court — rule that the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court is not in line with EU law.
Such legal opinions are not legally binding but are often followed by the court. The judges of the EU court are now beginning their deliberations in this case and a judgment is expected later this year.
The European Commission, which ensures that EU law is respected by the member states, brought a complaint to the Court of Justice over the issue. It believes that independence and the impartiality of the Disciplinary Chamber cannot be guaranteed.
The chamber is composed of judges selected by the National Council of the Judiciary, a body whose own members are chosen by the parliament where Law and Justice holds a majority.
The news of Tanchev’s opinion arrived in Warsaw as lawyers and others gathered outside the Supreme Court as the Disciplinary Chamber was hearing the case of a judge.
Michal Wawrykiewicz, a lawyer with Free Courts, a group fighting for judicial independence, delivered a message in English to the TV cameras.
“Dear judges of the European Court of Justice, hear the voices of Polish lawyers, citizens, who are horrified by the destruction of Poland’s rule of law,” Wawrykiewicz said.
“We are doing everything what is in our power,” he said. “Please help us restore European standards of an independent judiciary in Poland. Now it is your turn.”