Ruling comes just two days before local elections seen as key test for ruling party.
WARSAW — The Polish government was ordered to “immediately” suspend changes to the country’s Supreme Court by the European Court of Justice on Friday.
The ruling — issued just two days before local elections — comes in reaction to a series of recent laws revamping the functioning of the Polish court and lowering the retirement age of judges that critics said violated the constitution and undermined the rule of law.
The Polish court turned to the ECJ in August, asking whether the changes break EU rules. However, the Polish government and President Andrzej Duda have continued to push judges into retirement while appointing new ones, fueling criticism that the court is being brought under political control.
Earlier this month, the European Commission filed an action to the ECJ over Poland allegedly infringing EU law.
The ECJ issued an order with retroactive effect, freezing all actions by the government and turning back the clock to the situation before the new law entered into force this April.
In recent months some Polish ministers have said that ECJ rulings in the case won’t have to be obeyed.
One of the measures imposes a retirement age of 65 on Supreme Court justices, suspending about 40 percent of its judges including its president, Małgorzata Gersdorf. She refused to comply, arguing the measure violates the Polish constitution, which gives her a six-year term ending in 2020.
Judges wanting to stay on past 65 are supposed to ask permission from Duda, something most have refused to do, saying it weakens the independence of the judiciary.
Gersdorf told Polish media she is “pleased” with the ECJ ruling, but added: “I’m unhappy that my country’s government didn’t do this earlier and that we had to stand before the European tribunal.”
The ruling found that the government’s actions create “a profound and immediate change in the composition of the Supreme Court,” and noted that the “requirement of judicial independence forms part of the essence of the fundamental right to a fair trial.”
The injunctions will allow for the ECJ to deliver a verdict on the case at a later date.
The ruling landed like a bombshell in Warsaw. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieckisaid: “Certainly after an exacting analysis we will respond.”
Krzysztof Szczerski, Morawiecki’s chief of staff, told Polish media: “We’ll have to somehow react to the new situation.” But he added: “The situation of the law working in reverse is impossible.”
Błażej Spychalski, a spokesman for Duda,told Poland’s RMF radio that the ECJ decision might force a “decision to update the law on the Supreme Court.”
In recent months some Polish ministers have said that ECJ rulings in the case won’t have to be obeyed, while others have sent a more conciliatory message. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro filed a case recently with the Constitutional Tribunal, another top court, asking whether Polish law is superior to EU law.
In the final note of the injunction, the ECJ said that, ”The Member State concerned must comply with the Court’s judgment without delay,” and warned of fines for non-compliance.
In December, the European Commission launched so-called Article 7 disciplinary proceedings against Poland.
The ECJ’s injunction was seized upon by the Polish opposition, which has been warning that the Law and Justice (PiS) party government’s long-term goal is to lead Poland out of the EU — a charge vociferously denied by the government.
“PiS illegality has to stop,” tweeted Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the opposition Civic Platform party. “PiS has destroyed Poland’s position in Europe, but it won’t destroy the European values shared by Poles.”
The ECJ has already dealt with the growing disquiet about the state of Poland’s courts. In July it responded to a query from an Irish court on the independence of the Polish judicial system by saying foreign courts have to assess whether suspects face the risk of an unfair trial if they are extradited to Poland.
In December, the European Commission launched so-called Article 7 disciplinary proceedings against Poland over changes to the judicial system. The process could result in the country losing its voting rights as an EU member.