WARSAW, Poland – Europe's pre-eminent human rights organization on Thursday called Poland's vote to give lawmakers the power to control the selection and regulation of judges a "major setback for judicial independence."
Nils Muiznieks, the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, said the Polish government had neglected "compelling contrary advice" before voting to give parliament, rather than judges, the power to choose members of the National Council of the Judiciary.
The council's tasks include drawing up and enforcing ethical guidelines for judges, reviewing judicial candidates and seeking opinions on new rules and regulations to ensure they are constitutional.
"The politicians will now have the sole power to choose judges. The reform gives the politicians power over the judges," said Barbara Dolniak of the opposition Modern party.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's most powerful politician and leader of the Law and Justice party, contends that the courts are rooted in the communist era and are working to protect those who served the previous system.
Defending the new rules on the National Council, Deputy Justice Marcin Warchol said the change meant an "end to a corporation system, a system where the third power (the judiciary) was outside any control."
The ruling party has previously drawn international condemnation for stacking it loyalists on the Constitutional Tribunal, which screens legislation for accordance with the national constitution. The European Union says these policies violate democracy and the rule of law.
On Wednesday, the ruling party proposed a draft law that would force current members of the Supreme Court to retire, except for those who have the backing of the justice minister.
The head of the court, Malgorzata Gersdorf, said the legislation would give the justice minister "very big power" over the court's judges and that was "very alarming and dangerous." The government had not consulted the court, she said, and added that the announcement of the proposed legislation made it a "black Wednesday."
The Supreme Court supervises and provides guidance to lower courts on complex cases and can rule in disputed cases. It also rules on electoral protests and determines the validity of elections.
The opposition says the changes the ruling party introduces violate the constitution and bring judges under political influence.
Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP Christian Democrats, the biggest group in the European Parliament, said the Polish government had gone one step too far with the changes to the National Council rules, "putting an end to the rule of law and democracy in Poland and leaving the European community of values."
The new rules on the National Council had already been criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international and national legal institutions.
Poland's opposition and judges also voiced outrage at the surprise draft law on the Supreme Court.
"This is a kind of an accumulation of power and it changes the system of power in Poland," said judge Michal Laskowski, spokesman for the Supreme Court.
Casert reported from Brussels