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EU Considers Sanctions Against Poland For Overhauling Its Judiciary


Over the next few weeks, we're going to be looking at how authoritarian and populist regimes around the world are eroding institutions that provide a check on their power. We start today in Europe, where the EU is considering imposing sanctions on Poland, one of its own member states. The ruling party in Poland has reduced both the powers and the independence of judges there, citing the need to make its judiciary more efficient and stamp out communist influence. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Warsaw.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Growing up under Soviet rule, Malgorzata Gersdorf says she yearned for a day when Poland would have freedom and justice.

MALGORZATA GERSDORF: (Through interpreter) It had been our dream to be a free European country.

SCHMITZ: And in 1989, Poland took an important step towards that dream.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Still, in Europe, Poland's communist party suffered another setback Sunday when all but one of its candidates lost in the second round of parliamentary elections.

SCHMITZ: As a young lawyer, Gersdorf took part in the solidarity movement that sparked the transformation from communism to democracy in Poland. She helped build her country's court system. And for the last six years, she's overseen it. She's the first president of Poland's Supreme Court. Gersdorf says building Poland's democracy took decades of work. And in a matter of just a few years, she's watched in horror as the nationalist party in power since 2015 has systematically dismantled it.

GERSDORF: (Through interpreter) The only thing they haven't managed to achieve is removing me from office before my term expired.

SCHMITZ: Failing to oust Gersdorf was but a minor setback in the ruling party's step-by-step removal of judicial powers that led to this month's new law muzzling the country's judges from criticizing the government.

GERSDORF: (Through interpreter) Which means we no longer are a democracy based on the rule of law, as defined by our constitution. The executive in Poland is now placed above the judiciary. This is totally unacceptable in a country based on the rule of law.

SCHMITZ: That ruling party stripping power from Poland's courts is named, ironically, Law and Justice. The anti-EU, anti-immigrant party was voted into office in 2015 on a platform that promised to overhaul the country's overburdened court system. It went straight to work, first filling the country's Constitutional Tribunal, the body that decides whether new laws are constitutional, with judges loyal to the ruling party.

Then, in 2017, it tried to purge the country's Supreme Court of nearly half its judges by introducing a law that lowered the retirement age. When that failed, the party changed tactics, turning its attention to the National Judicial Council that appoints Poland's judges. It took over the council. And when judges complained, the party then passed a law making those complaints illegal and punishable. With each step, the party's tactics were met with protests...


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

SCHMITZ: ...Dozens of them, attracting tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of angry Poles. Throughout it all, the party has used Poland's public media as a tool to target judges who have fought back against its changes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Polish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: After one judge appealed to the EU, a host of a popular nightly news program asked if that judge thought he was part of an elite cast. That judge, Igor Tuleya, says after dozens of media attacks on him, he no longer feels safe.

IGOR TULEYA: (Through interpreter) I pass a person on the street and they shout, you whore, you traitor. After someone smeared dog feces on my doorknob, my landlord kicked me out of my flat.

SCHMITZ: Poland's Ministry of Justice did not reply to NPR's interview request. But Marek Ast, who chairs the Justice and Human Rights Committee in Poland's Parliament, did. He calls his party's overhaul of the courts reforms that restore balance to Poland's government.

MAREK AST: (Through interpreter) Until now in Poland, we've had a judge-ocracy (ph). It was judges who decided what the justice system looks like. They alone judged themselves within the disciplinary system. Despite their many pathological behaviors, they remain unpunished.

SCHMITZ: Ast and his party brethren say they're overhauling Poland's courts because they believe too many judges are ideological leftovers from the country's decades under Soviet rule. He estimates one-third of all judges in Poland from the previous political system continue to adjudicate cases today. When I point out the actual figure is closer to 10%, he says it doesn't matter.

AST: (Through interpreter) The problem is that those who used to adjudicate under communism have trained the next generation of judges, so their mentality has not changed.

SCHMITZ: When I respond by jokingly asking him why his party hasn't fired all of the country's judges, he considers the question seriously.

AST: (Through interpreter) We would need a constitutional majority to make that possible. But maybe that kind of solution would be best.

SCHMITZ: Ast is not alone in his thinking.


UNIDENTIFIED RALLY ATTENDEES: (Singing in non-English language).

SCHMITZ: Pro-government rallies organized by rural church parishes supportive of the ruling party were staged in Warsaw after the EU criticized Poland's judicial overhaul.

Warsaw University (ph) law professor Marcin Matczak says the ruling party's conservative base may agree the judiciary needs to be brought under control, but he says they may not understand that doing so could lead to real economic consequences. Matczak consults with foreign companies and says they're scared to invest in Poland for fear that they won't be protected by local courts in the case of a dispute.

MARCIN MATCZAK: How can you trust that the Polish court - that is under some kind of an impact of the politicians who urge the court to take into consideration the national interest - that they can solve the problem?

SCHMITZ: He calls the ruling party's end game Polexit (ph) - the eventual exit of Poland from the EU. Two years ago, the EU invoked Article 7 to deal with Poland's judicial overhaul. It's dubbed the nuclear option for member states, a timeline that begins with warnings and ends with economic sanctions and eventually the removal of the country from the EU parliamentary process.

Supreme Court First President Gersdorf is more worried about how Poland's gutting of its court system is part of a trend in Europe that started in Hungary and could also plague Romania, Bulgaria and other fledgling democracies. She's done a lot of thinking about where her country went wrong.

GERSDORF: (Through interpreter) We failed at educating people about what democracy is, how it works. We didn't teach people what the constitution is, what its role is. I blame myself. I am a teacher.

SCHMITZ: Despite all this, Gersdorf insists she remains an optimist. When she steps down as head of the Supreme Court on April 30, Gersdorf plans to devote the rest of her life to teaching young Poles how a democracy functions and why a healthy legal system is crucial for its survival.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw.


Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.