Polish lawmakers OK disciplining judges; EU decries move

International

Demonstrators hold a rally to protest against changes to Poland’s judiciary planned by the ruling Law and Justice party near the building of parliament in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The lower house of the Polish parliament on Friday passed legislation giving the right-wing government new powers to fire or fine judges whose rulings it does not like — a move that overrides the concerns of the European Union and the United Nations.

The bill still faces a vote in the Senate, where the opposition has a slim majority. But the upper house has little real power and will only be able to delay the bill, not block it, and Poland’s president is expected to sign it.

The EU had urged Polish authorities on Thursday to suspend the bill, citing concerns about judicial independence.

The bill passed after two days of emotional debate. Government supporters defended it as a way to bring order to what they claim is a “chaotic” justice system and opposition lawmakers said it threatens democracy.

Vera Jourova, European Commission vice-president for values and transparency, made her appeal in a letter Thursday to Poland’s president, prime minister and the speakers of the two houses of parliament. Saying the commission was concerned about judicial independence and rule of law, she asked Polish authorities to consult with legal experts at the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body, before moving forward.

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, also urged the Polish parliament to stop working on the bill. On Twitter, she wrote that it ”further curtails judges’ & prosecutors’ independence & freedom of expression on pain of penalties or dismissal.”

Since the conservative governing party, Law and Justice, came to power in 2015, it has been cementing its power over most of the country’s judicial system. It argues the changes make the system more efficient. The EU and domestic critics say the changes violate democratic standards in a nation that only became a democracy 30 years ago with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

The legislation allows the government to discipline judges who speak out against changes the ruling party made to the judiciary, even when the judges’ rulings adhere to European Union law and Poland’s Constitution.

Critics have denounced the legislation as draconian, and protests took place across Poland on Wednesday evening.

Poland’s Supreme Court argued this week that by overriding the primacy of EU law, the bill could put Poland on the path toward eventually being forced out of the 28-member European bloc.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday said the legislation “risks further undermining the already heavily challenged independence of the judiciary in Poland.”

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