Polish tribunal says parts of new law unconstitutional

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled Thursday that parts of a new law governing its own operation are unconstitutional, the latest development in a nine-month saga centered on Poland’s highest legislative court seen as a bellwether for the state of the nation’s young democracy.

The legislation, passed in July, is the work of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, which began soon after taking power in November to try to change both the makeup of the 15-judge court and the rules by which it functions.

Party leaders have argued that political opponents are overly represented in the tribunal, and that changes to the court were needed so the party can enact its conservative agenda.

But the European Union and civil rights groups in Poland and abroad accuse the party of eroding the rule of law and human rights with the changes. They say the court is being eviscerated to the point that it is unable to act as a check on government power, violating the democratic principle of separation of powers.

With the court largely paralyzed, it has been unable to rule on other legislation that critics say harm civil liberties, including laws that have increased government control over state media and increased police surveillance powers.

As the court deliberated Thursday, government opponents held a protest outside of the building in Warsaw, shouting “democracy!” and “constitution!”

Mateusz Kijowski, the leader of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, expressed satisfaction that the court struck down parts of the new law, but said he did not expect the government to respect the court’s ruling.

“The division of powers is not respected anymore, so democracy isn’t working,” Kijowski told The Associated Press.

Among the provisions that the court struck down is a law giving four judges on the 15-judge court the power to block rulings for up to six months.

It also struck down an amendment which requires the court to examine complaints in the chronological order in which they are brought. With some 400 complaints still waiting to be considered by the court, this would mean, in practice, that any new laws could avoid scrutiny for years by the tribunal, which has a role similar to that of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The legislation was passed July 22 by the Polish parliament, where Law and Justice has a majority, and it was signed into law July 30 by President Andrzej Duda, who is allied with the party.

Law and Justice said the legislation was meant to redress international concerns about an earlier law passed in December, which made it much more difficult for the court to strike down legislation. In one case, the legislation abolished an earlier requirement for a simple majority for rulings and replaced it with a two-thirds majority standard.

That law faced strong international criticism, with the Venice Commission, a body of legal experts with the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, saying it violated democracy, human rights and rule of law. Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal also struck down many parts of it, but the government refused to publish the ruling, preventing it from taking effect.

EU Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said in late July that the new legislation leaves fundamental concerns about the rule of law in Poland “unresolved.” He said some changes “go in the right direction” — welcoming the fact that it drops the two-thirds majority provision in favor of a simple majority — but said it added “new problematic provisions.”

“In Poland the Constitutional Tribunal is still prevented from fully ensuring an effective constitutional review,” Timmermans added. “This adversely affects its integrity, stability and proper functioning, which is one of the essential safeguards of the rule of law in Poland.”

U.S. President Barack Obama also expressed his concerns about the impasse surrounding the court during a visit to Warsaw in July for a NATO summit.