Supreme Court shake-up stirs protests in Poland

Polish President Andrzej Duda

Polish President Andrzej Duda

The head of the Polish supreme court, Małgorzata Gersdorf, has turned up for work in defiance of a retirement law that would force her to step down immediately, which has been pushed through by the rightwing government but criticised by the European Union for undermining judicial independence.

The conflict has isolated Poland within the European Union, where most governments are critical of Warsaw's move.

Twenty-seven of the top court's 73 judges are affected by the reform.

But presidential aide Pawel Mucha told reporters that Gersdorf was "going into retirement in accordance with the law" and that the Supreme Court was now "headed by Judge Jozef Iwulski", who was chosen by Duda.

The controversial law is at the center of the storm of Poland's broader constitutional crisis, which is straining its relationship with the European Union.

The hundreds of people who gathered sang the national anthem and chanted "Judges are not removable!" and "Constitution!" as the court's First President Malgorzata Gersdorf showed up for work, saying that according to the constitution, her six-year term runs through 2020.

The purge is the result of a long-running clash between Poland's judiciary and its right-wing national government, which has accused the justices of obstructionism and has systematically worked to increase its own power over the country's legal system.

Poland is on the verge of removing almost 40 percent of its Supreme Court judges, as a new law, which requires judges to retire at the age of 65 and also expands the Supreme Court significantly, is set to comes into force.

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The changes began after the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and have expanded gradually.

The protests come as a lower retirement age takes effect for Poland's Supreme Court justices.

European Union officials and global human rights groups have expressed alarm, alleging the moves represent an erosion of judicial independence that violates Western standards and a reversal for democracy in Poland. Its justices also rule on the validity of elections.

Protests in support of Gersdorf and other defiant judges who have said they will refuse to retire are set to take place on Tuesday evening and early Wednesday around the court's offices in central Warsaw.

"I still hope that the legal order will be restored in Poland", Gersdorf told the demonstrators. Critics say the government is seeking control over Poland's courts by forcing judges to retire.

Government leaders say they are trying to make the courts more democratic by making judges more accountable to voters.

The European Commission, the bloc's powerful executive arm, said Monday that the changes would undermine "the irremovability of judges" and judicial independence in Poland, breaching the country's obligations under EU law. Gersdorf did not, however, arguing that the constitution guaranteed her continued tenure.

"The constitution gives me a six-year term", Gersdorf told lawmakers in parliament after meeting the Polish president, Andrzej Duda.

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