President appoints new Chief Justice of Supreme Court

Polish President Andrzej Duda has appointed Małgorzata Manowska as the new Chief Justice of Poland’s Supreme Court (SN), President’s spokesman Błażej Spychalski announced on Monday.

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Simultaneously, the President nominated Judge Michał Laskowski as head of the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court.

The President chose the Chief Justice from a list of five candidates chosen by the General Assembly of SN. The list included Włodzimierz Wróbel, who received a total of 50 votes, Małgorzata Manowska (25 votes), Tomasz Demendecki (14 votes), Leszek Bosek (4 votes) and Joanna Misztal-Konecka (2 votes).

The new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will replace Judge Malgorzata Gersdorf, whose term of office expired on April 30.

Before making his decision, the president had referred to the discussion amongst Polish politicians, publicists, and constitutional lawyers over the weekend. Many of them suggested that because Judge Wróbel received the highest number of votes, he should be appointed Chief Justice.

“This is a decision which I will certainly make based on reasoning, using the presidential prerogative, which is appointing the Chief Justice from the candidates chosen by the General Assembly of Judges of Supreme Court,” President Duda said on Sunday in an interview with Polish public broadcaster TVP Info.

“I will bear in mind the judicial experience of the candidates, their current attitude. It is important for me, whether these people openly manifested their political views, especially recently,” the president said.

He stressed that in the past, former presidents did not always follow the opinion of the lawyers’ associations or the number of votes. “The President appoints [such officials] entirely freely, in line with his own criteria,” he said.

The battle for the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court had taken since the beginning of May until late Saturday 23 May to elect the short-list of five justices from which the President could make his choice. The cc100 justices of the Supreme Court were divided between those who had taken office before the coming to power of the current government and those who have been appointed since.

The constitution gives the President the power to select a Chief Justice from a shortlist of candidates presented to him by the Supreme Court itself. The divisions among the present make-up of the Supreme Court relate to the row about changes on the National Judicial Council (KRS) the body which recommends those judges who the President may nominate to serve on the Supreme Court.

According to resolutions taken by justices of the Supreme Court those judges recommended by the KRS are not “independent judges”. The KRS, according to those justices, is no longer an independent body as it is now elected by Parliament, rather than being elected by judges, as was the case until recently.

However, the constitutional court recently ruled that the President has the right to nominate judges and that no one other than the constitutional court may deem whether any legislation is constitutional. The EC and the ECJ have in recent months criticised Poland’s judicial reforms arguing that they breach European law in terms of failing to guarantee judicial independence.

The nomination of the Chief Justice will not end the controversy around the Supreme Court. Judges who were appointed before 2015 will continue to argue that the President has over-reached because they claim that the Supreme Court should not have recommended for his consideration judges whom they deem not to be ‘independent’. However, Chief Justice Manowska is a senior lawyer who is respected by her predecessor, Małgorzata Gersdorf, which may stand her in good stead to attempt to resolve divisions inside Poland’s Supreme Court.

But peace may be short-lived. Should President Duda fail in his re-election bid, a new President from the opposition may, together with some justices on the court return to the way the nomination of the shortlist took place. The struggle on and around the Supreme Court is far from over.