WARSAW – Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled Wednesday that new rules introduced by the new government to regulate how the court functions are unconstitutional.
The ruling deepens a legal crisis that has upended politics in Poland and brought sharp condemnation from European and U.S. authorities.
While it bolsters the moral position of government critics alarmed at what they see as an attack on democracy, the judgment is nonetheless powerless to resolve the crisis because the conservative government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo says it won’t treat it as valid.
An opposition lawmaker, Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, said if the court rulings are not respected it will lead to the biggest constitutional crisis in Poland since the country established democracy in 1989.
Szydlo’s government says it will also dismiss a separate judgment expected Friday by the Venice Commission, an expert body with the Council of Europe human rights group, which has analyzed the changes to the court.
In a leaked draft of the report, the commission said changes to the court threaten the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Poland. Ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski insists that Poland is a sovereign nation that will decide its own affairs.
The ruling also comes amid a deepening hostility between the government and its critics. Kaczynski reacted to a series of street protests in past months by accusing the critics of trying to harm Poland’s interests.
“I am afraid Poland is really stuck. There seems to be no way out now,” said Hanna Szulczewska, a member of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, an organization formed late last year in reaction to the moves against the court.
Law and Justice swept to power last year, becoming more dominant than any other party in the 27 years of Poland’s post-communist history. It now controls the presidency, both houses of parliament and the government, and has used its powers to quickly take control of a vast range of institutions. Since the government took office last year it has increased its control over state broadcast media, boosted police powers of surveillance and eliminated the office of the general prosecutor, putting those powers under the Ministry of Justice.
In its ruling Wednesday, judges ruled that many of the laws passed late last year which fundamentally change how the 15-judge court functions breach Poland’s constitution.
One of the new laws stipulate that the court should take up cases in the chronological order in which they are brought to the court. Another requires a two-thirds majority to support a ruling for it to be valid, a change from a simple majority previously. Another contested change requires a quorum of 13 judges for rulings to be valid.
Critics say the changes have paralyzed the court, depriving it of the power to prioritize cases and preventing it from acting as a check on any new laws that Law and Justice passes.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE liberal group in the European Parliament, urged Szydlo’s government to respect the court’s verdict. He said he believes Poles will not let the party “manipulate their wonderful country eastwards, away from democracy and the trans-Atlantic community of values.”
The European Union is deeply concerned and has opened an investigation. The United States is also concerned. Last month three U.S. Senators, among them John McCain, wrote to Szydlo saying they fear changes to the court and the public media “could serve to diminish democratic norms, including the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.”
She and other leaders replied to the senators that they were misinformed about the country and do not have the right to lecture Warsaw about its internal affairs.
The country’s conservative new leaders argue that changes are needed to break the stranglehold over the country’s institutions by the more liberal opposition party, Civic Platform, which held power for eight years until last year. They insist they have a strong electoral mandate to make deep changes to the country, moving it in a conservative and patriotic direction.