By Gabriela Baczynska and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk
BRUSSELS/WARSAW -The top EU court ruled on Wednesday that Poland had violated democratic rules of judicial independence in forcing the transfer of a judge who had criticised the government, in a strong rebuke to Warsaw’s governing nationalists.
The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ) found that Poland had denied judge Waldemar Zurek’s right to an appeal when he was removed from his job without his consent in 2018. It will be up to Polish courts to decide how to respond to the ruling, but the EU can take legal action to enforce it.
Poland’s Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta tweeted that the ruling “encourages the anarchisation of the Polish legal order”, and the ECJ was trying to replace Poland’s constitutional court in supervising the judicial system.
Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has introduced sweeping changes to the judiciary, saying they are needed to drive out holdovers from the communist era that ended three decades ago.
The opposition, other EU countries, the United States, and international rights watchdogs have all denounced the changes as a power grab to silence critics, subject courts to more government control and undermine democratic checks and balances.
Zurek, who had publicly criticised the judicial overhaul, was removed from his post at a division of a regional court in Krakow, southern Poland, and given another job at a different unit. His appeal against the move was rejected.
The ECJ ruled that the judge that dismissed Zurek’s appeal had himself been appointed through a process which “cast reasonable doubts… as to his neutrality”, and was “likely to prejudice the trust which justice in a democratic society governed by the rule of law must inspire in individuals”.
Since the process of picking that judge was flawed, his dismissal of Zurek’s appeal “must be declared null and void”.
It will be up to Polish courts to decide on the next steps, but the EU’s executive European Commission can sue the Polish government and potentially impose financial penalties if it believes an ECJ ruling has been ignored.