‘I’m not an interim chief justice’, senior Supreme Court judge says

Supreme Court Judge Dariusz Zawistowski says accepting position of "interim Chief Justice" would be contrary to Poland's constitution. Photo: PAP/Tomasz Gzell

On Tuesday, one of the senior judges of Poland’s Supreme Court stated that he does not consider himself an “interim Chief Justice”, standing by the earlier decision that previous Chief Justice was still in charge of the court despite the latest legislative changes which lowered the retirement age for the judiciary.

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In an interview for one of Poland’s news websites, Dariusz Zawistowski, the current head of the Supreme Court’s civil law division, referred to an earlier statement by a presidential aid that Mr Zawistowski would effectively be taking over the management of the Supreme Court as the most senior among the current judges.

The statement came in the wake of the President’s decision to allow five current judges to keep their posts despite reaching the new retirement age of 65. The presidential official said that all those judges who applied for an extension of their term but whom the President did not name in Tuesday’s decision would be effectively barred from adjudicating – a view that was contested by the judges.

Supreme Court judges consider Małgorzata Gersdorf (R) as the serving Chief Justice despite the amended legislation on judicial retirement age. Photo: PAP/Tomasz Gzell

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The reluctant judge

“I do not consider myself an interim Chief Justice. We, as the Supreme Court, adopted a position that Małgorzata Gersdorf remains the Chief Justice and there is no reason for us to change our minds,” Mr Zawistowski said on Tuesday. Ms Gersdorf, who has reached the new retirement age, has contested the new law from the very start, calling it unconstitutional.

Unlike most other Supreme Court judges over the age of 65, she also refused to apply to the President for term extension. This led some ruling party politicians to comment that this concludes the matter, yet the Supreme Court judges adopted a resolution in June this year, stating that Ms Gersdorf would retain her post until April 2020, alleging that the new law was incompatible with the constitution.

In the interview, Mr Zawistowski said that his role would by law be limited to that of an acting Chief Justice in Ms Gersdorf’s absence. The current active Chief Justice, Józef Iwulski, applied for term extension but was not mentioned in Tuesday’s presidential decision.

The presidential spokesman suggested his term would expire automatically, but in an announcement made on Tuesday afternoon, the spokesman for the Supreme Court said that both the current acting Chief Justice and six other judges who were not granted an extension despite filing an application would remain in office until an official decision on their retirement was announced. The Supreme Court spokesman also admitted that Mr Zawistowski would be obliged by law to take over the reins of the Court if the current acting Chief Justice was removed from his post.

Ms Gersdorf, who consistently opposed the judicial reform, took flak from government supporters for participating in opposition protests. Photo: PAP/Paweł Supernak

A law unto themselves?

The Supreme Court controversy began when Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party spearheaded its flagship judicial reform, introducing a mandatory retirement age earlier this year, affecting judges over the age of 65. The move was seen by critics as a way by the party to encroach upon the independence of the judiciary.

In August this year, the Supreme Court made a reference for preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice with respect to the provisions on retirement age, alleging that they violate the principles of EC law. They also suspended the application of the new law pending the ruling of the ECJ.

The government castigated the court for attempting to suspend an act of parliament, seeing it as an abuse of judicial powers. The ruling Law and Justice party has consistently stated that the judicial reform is intended to rid Poland’s judicial system of its communist legacy and restore the public’s confidence in the judiciary as such.