Poland’s chief judge has turned up for work on Wednesday refusing to comply with an order to retire now as part of controversial reforms that critics say undermine the judiciary’s independence.
Malgorzata Gersdorf, the head of the Supreme Court, had vowed to go to work as usual, despite being told she had to step down on Tuesday under new rules that came into effect at midnight.
She was seen entering the court building in Warsaw. “My presence here is not about politics, I am here to protect the rule of law,” she said at the court’s entrance, surrounded by opposition politician and hundreds of supporters chanting "constitution" and singing the Polish national anthem.
The chief justice has described as a “purge” the reforms requiring judges to retire at 65 instead of 70 years old. Up to 40 percent of Supreme Court judges are expected to be forced out.
Polish Prime MInister Mateusz Morawiecki told the European Parliament on Wednesday that countries had the right to shape their courts according to their own traditions.
MEPs accused him of spearheading an unacceptable assault on judicial independence, by giving the ruling party too much control over the courts.
Under the changes, Gersdorf could have asked President Duda for an extension of her mandate. However, she refused to do so, saying “that would mean subordination”.
Her action paves the way for a standoff with a new chief justice appointed by the president.
The changes brought in by the ruling nationalist party have escalated tensions between Poland and the European Union over democratic values. On Monday the EU launched legal action against the Polish government, which faces the threat of losing its voting rights.
The conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has been accused of trying to take effective control of the judicial system by seeking to stuff the courts with sympathetic judges. The ruling party argues the changes are needed to overhaul a system that has changed too little since the communist era, and will help fight corruption.
“The court system… is an entirely internal matter,” the PAP news agency quoted PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski as telling the Gazeta Polska newspaper.
The ruling party has maintained support of around 40 percent during the row with the EU, according to opinion polls, well above that of any single rival party.