On February 4, 2020 the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda signed a law that prohibits the country’s judiciary to question the appointment of judges by the President and bars them from being involved in political activities. The law also prohibits judges to seek guidance from the EU Court of Justice on appointments by the National Council of Judiciary (NCJ) of Poland.
Opposition parties condemned the law and Supreme Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf termed it as “Muzzle Law”.
In December 2019, the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament passed the bill that would penalize judges who criticize the judicial reforms of the ruling Law and Justice party. It was sent back by the upper house for further discussion and a vote. However Sejm, using its superior power, enacted the bill, which the president signed on February 4, 2020, making it a law in the country.
The SC of Poland had earlier ruled on December 5, 2019 that the NCJ is not an independent body. Again on January 23, 2020 the SC in a ruling termed the appointment of the judges by the NCJ as illegal stating their apprehension that they may not be free from political influence. The Justice Ministry, quite predictably termed the SC verdict as a “serious violation of the law”.
The law has drawn criticism from lawmakers as well as legal scholars across Europe and the European Union. On 11th January 2020, hundreds of judges from across Europe marched in Warsaw to protest against the enacting of the controversial law. Thousands of lawyers and residents joined in with many waving Polish and EU flags as they marched from the SC to the parliament. "We have come here to support the Polish judges but we are not politicians. We are here about the rule of law, not about politics." John MacMenamin, an Irish Supreme Court judge, told reporters.
In February 2020, a group of 44 ICJ Commissioners and Honorary Members along with senior judges, lawyers and legal scholars from across the world released a statement in which they said, “it is clear that the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and the capacity of Polish judges to uphold the rule of law are now severely compromised. Judges’ freedom of expression, association and assembly are under immediate threat.”
Ever since it came to power in 2015, The Law and Justice Party of Poland, has been working towards dismantling the independence of the judiciary, terming it judicial reforms. There has been opposition to these actions by the opposition parties, judicial bodies as well as European Union.
Late in 2017, the European Union had initiated what it called “unprecedented proceedings” against Poland. The move was a response to the worrying reforms in the judiciary that were being enforced by the government. The EU had stated back then that these “systematic threats” could see Poland losing its EU voting rights.
On 29th April, 2020, The EU started a new legal case against the nationalist Polish government in response to the adoption of the “muzzle law”. The EU further added that it was giving Poland two months to address the issues pertaining to the law. “This is a European issue because Polish courts apply European law. Judges from other countries must trust that Polish judges act independently. This mutual trust is the foundation of our single market,” said Vera Jourova, the Czech member of the executive Commission who is responsible for upholding the EU’s democratic values at a news conference.
A few European legal scholars have warned that the developments in Poland are a threat to the entire legal system of the EU. Despite all the criticism and pressure from the EU, the Polish government is yet to respond meaningfully to the growing concerns over the assault on Poland’s judicial system and its potential EU exit.