Court in Poland Rules that Changes to Constitutional Tribunal are Illegal
Changes to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which would effectively bring it under control of the country’s new government and prevent it carrying out its role of scrutinising parliament have been ruled illegal.
The Constitutional Tribunal itself ruled against the changes, introduced by the Law and Justice (PiS) government in December. Its ruling stated that several points of the new law were unconstitutional.
The Tribunal refused a request from the justice minister and chief prosecutor Zbigniew Ziobro to postpone its ruling. It also defended the decision to examine the case into its own operation, stating that there was no other body in Poland competent of issuing a judgment on constitutional matters.
The Tribunal recognised that the amendments to the law governing it had been passed in accordance with the constitution, but that the contents were incompatible with the ‘reliable and efficient functioning’ of the court.
The requirement for 13 of the 15 Constitutional Tribunal judges to be present in making a decision was ruled unconstitutional. The same was said of the required two-thirds majority vote, the requirement for cases to be dealt with in the order the court received them, and the possibility that parliament could effectively ‘sack’ a judge, among others.
Speaking about the ruling, judge Stanisław Biernat (pictured) said: “The situation referred to in the media as a paralysis or immobilisation of the Tribunal is, unfortunately, not too far from the truth”.
Judge Biernat added: “The legislative authority is democratically legitimised to create law, but is obliged to do so within the limits of the constitution. The guarantor of observance of the vonstitution by the legislative authority is the Constitutional Tribunal. The Tribunal, therefore, is an essential component of the system of constitutional democracy in Poland. It is not acceptable to deprive or replacement the Tribunal in this role. The drastic reduction of the possibility of a fair and independently functioning Constitutional Tribunal is a violation of the essence of the system of the Republic and cannot be tolerated”.
The judge said that the Constitutional Tribunal was and should be independent, subject not to government or parliament but to the constitution. Judges had the right to reject laws in full or part, he added.
Judge Biernat also noted that the constitution renders the decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal final, and that such decisions cannot be repealed by any other body.
However, Law and Justice will claim that the ruling of the Tribunal is invalid, because only 12 judges took part, instead of the 13 required by the law under scrutiny. Of those, nine agreed that the new law was unconstitutional. The other two, Julia Przyłębska Julia and Piotr Pszczółkowski , are new appointments made by the government.
The day before the ruling prime minister Beata Szydło said that there was an obligation to publish decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal which were reached in accordance with the law. The 12-member panel’s ruling could not be reached in accordance with the law, she said, adding: “I cannot break the constitution; I cannot publish such a document”.
Today’s announcement by the Constitutional Tribunal follows the publication of a leaked draft report by the Venice Commission, which warned that democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Poland could be in danger. The report is expected to be formally published in its final version this week.