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Outcry Over Poland's Supreme Court Purge


Protests have erupted in Poland this week. The ruling party there, the Law and Justice Party, is trying to revamp the Polish courts. For one thing, it's lowered the retirement age for Supreme Court judges, forcing a full third of them off the bench, including the court's top judge. That's raised alarm not only in Poland but throughout the European Union. Joining us to discuss all of this is Anne Applebaum, foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post. We should note that her husband, Radek Sikorski, was minister of foreign affairs in a previous Polish government. Welcome.


CHANG: Can you just start us off by telling us about the Law and Justice Party? I mean, what is it trying to achieve by remaking the Supreme Court?

APPLEBAUM: This is actually not the first step that the party has made in revamping the justice system. Under the rubric of judicial reform, what they have tried to do is essentially court packing. They've given all kinds of excuses for it. But if you talk to lawyers or judges - the legal community in Poland is pretty unanimous about this - the main goal appears to be to change the legal system unconstitutionally.

CHANG: And just to be clear, when we say Supreme Court in Poland, is it akin to the U.S. Supreme Court, or is the phrase used differently over there?

APPLEBAUM: The division is a little bit different, I mean, because they also - in addition to the Supreme Court, they also have a Constitutional court. I guess you would call this the highest court.


APPLEBAUM: The importance of this court - I should add - is also that, among its other tasks, it certifies the results of elections. So there are fears that by packing the court - that they would then be able to cheat in the next elections. They are a party that does not have a majority of the votes. They won a majority in Parliament through a series of flukes and, you know, through electoral math.

CHANG: So they don't have a majority. And we've talked about the country being rocked by protests. But are there a fair number of people in Poland who are cheering on these latest actions, who support what is going on?

APPLEBAUM: Sure, of course there are. You know, they have a pretty solid - you know, something like 30 percent of the population supports them. They are describing this as a kind of anti-communist activity. They have described the Polish judges as a band of thieves as they've used terrible language about the woman who's the chief justice. And we of course know these kinds of - how this works in our own country. This is nothing new to Poland. You know, if you consistently smear a particular institution and you say that it's corrupt and that it's - you know, that these are bad people, then a percentage of the population will go along with that. And they have - we have a very, very polarized media in Poland, much - again - like the United States. And so, yes, there are people who believe that.

CHANG: Lech Walesa, who led Poland in the fight against communism, later went on to become president there, he's warning of a civil war in Poland. Do you know what he means by that? Is he being alarmist?

APPLEBAUM: So it doesn't feel to me right now that there's going to be violence. You know, one can always be wrong about these things, but I don't think that's correct. But there is - I think metaphorically, there is a kind of civil war. I mean, it's clear that there are clearly two Polands. I mean, there's one Poland which is Western-oriented, which believes in the rule of law, which is, you know, angry about this and many of the other changes that have been brought about by this government. And so there are people who are angry about that. And then there's a part of the population who's - you know, who support it. Somehow we've managed to create two tribes even though it's a completely homogenous country. You know, everybody's Polish. And yet, nevertheless, there are these - the ruling party says that those who oppose us aren't really Polish. And, you know, of course they are.

CHANG: Anne Applebaum is a foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post. She joined us via Skype. Thank you very much.

APPLEBAUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.