*

upload_article_image

Poland approves controversial judges to constitutional court

Poland’s parliament elected three ruling party nominees as judges to the constitutional court, including two widely denounced by opposition lawmakers, raising concerns about the court’s independence.

Parliament voted the judges in late Thursday during a heated session that included calls of “Disgrace!” by opposition lawmakers. The president must still swear them in. The Constitutional Tribunal’s responsibilities include ensuring that legislation conforms with the constitution.

The most disputed of the three judges is Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a former communist-era state prosecutor and the architect of laws pushed by the conservative ruling Law and Justice party over the past four years that the European Union says erode judicial independence. Piotrowicz lost his seat in parliament in October elections.

Law and Justice often justifies its overhaul of the justice system by saying it is cleaning up corruption and purging remnants of the communist system that ended 30 years ago. The party has faced accusations of hypocrisy for making a former communist prosecutor the face of its reforms. Some say his role is an indication that the changes actually amount to a power grab.

The judicial changes have sparked numerous street protests in recent years by Poles who fear they pose a threat to democracy.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended Piotrowicz this week, saying he “behaved decently” with the cases he handled during the communist era. Piotrowicz has also faced criticism for appearing to protect a priest found guilty of sexual abuse of minors.

The other disputed nominee is Krystyna Pawlowicz, a jurist and former lawmaker whose hard-right rhetoric at one point prompted Law and Justice to say she would leave politics.

Opponents also questioned the legality of the judges’ appointments: both are 67; the retirement age for judges is 65.

The country’s ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, said the appointments were a “clear breach of the statutory provision.”

Michal Szczerba of the opposition Civic Platform party said during Thursday’s debate that in addition to exceeding the age requirement, the candidates didn’t meet “the criterion of impeccable character.”

The third judge, Jakub Stelina, had his name put forward only hours before parliament’s vote. The private channel TVN24, stressing how rushed the nomination was, showed the ruling party politicians getting Stelina’s name wrong.

Opposition lawmakers also became agitated when Speaker Elzbieta Witek annulled a vote on another issue after a ruling party lawmaker said to her, “We have to annul it because we will lose.” There were apparently problems with the voting machine. The opposition accused the ruling party of violating parliamentary procedure.

Associated Press reporter Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.