Luxembourg, 24 June 2019 (dpa/MIA) – The top EU court dealt another setback to Poland’s national-conservative government Monday, ruling that a law lowering the retirement age of Supreme Court judges to 65 infringes judicial independence and breaches EU law.
The controversial measure, enacted last year, is one of several Polish reforms that the European Union considers in breach of the rule of law. It would let Supreme Court judges stay on only if they received permission from Poland’s president. In effect, this measure forced more than 20 out of 72 judges into retirement.
However, forcing a judge to retire is appropriate only on medical grounds or for reasons of incapacity, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled.
“The freedom of the judges from all external intervention … requires certain guarantees appropriate for protecting the individuals who have the task of adjudicating in a dispute,” the ECJ wrote in a press release.
This “principle of irremovability” also means that the Polish president may not extend judges’ terms on his own, another component of the reform, according to the Luxembourg judges.
This particular authority is “discretionary” because it is not “governed by any objective and verifiable criterion and for which reasons need not be stated,” the judges wrote. “In addition, that decision cannot be challenged in court proceedings.”
Amnesty International praised the judgement, calling it “significant not only for Poland but for other European Union countries who think that they can breach human rights with impunity.”
The judgement was largely expected, as an EU court advisor in April issued a non-binding opinion in April with the same conclusion.
Separately, an advisor issued another opinion last week that found that a related Polish law – pertaining to lower-court judges’ retirement – also breached the principle of judicial independence.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party argued at the time of implementation that it was purging the court of corrupt judges and that the organization of the judiciary is a national matter. Opponents accused PiS of trying to remove critical voices.
Following a legal challenge by the European Commission, the ECJ last year ordered Warsaw to reverse the reform and reinstate the judges, pending its verdict. Poland has since scrapped the contested law.
More broadly, Brussels and Warsaw have been at loggerheads over this and other measures introduced since the PiS came to power in 2015.
The commission has also launched against Poland a separate rule-of-law procedure often described as the nuclear option, as it could ultimately lead to the suspension of EU voting rights.
The commission praised Monday’s judgement, noting that although justice is a national authority, member states must still “comply with their obligations under EU law.”
“Every national court is also a European court when applying EU law,” it said in a press release. “Member states must therefore ensure effective judicial protection for individuals in the fields covered by EU law.”