Polish lawmakers pass contested law on constitutional court

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Posted: Dec 22, 2015 6:57 PM
Polish lawmakers pass contested law on constitutional court

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's parliament passed contested new legislation on Tuesday that regulates the Constitutional Tribunal, something critics say will paralyze the court and make it unable to act as a check on the power of the country's new right-wing government.

The vote, which took place late in the evening after a heated debate, came as Poland comes under increasing criticism internationally and at home for its attempts to neutralize the court. Large street protests supporting both sides have taken place in past weeks, with opponents saying the move to take control of the nation's top legislative court is an attack on the country's democratic foundations.

After the conservative Law and Justice took power last month it found itself in control of both houses of parliament in addition to the presidency. That left the Constitutional Tribunal as one of the only state organs that could check its power. The party tried to quickly stack the court with party loyalties before it moved onto the disputed legislation, which opponents see an attack on an independent judiciary.

The ruling party says it wants to reform a court that is filled with appointees made by the past government. It claims its victory in October elections is a mandate by voters to make deep changes to the country. The ruling party and its supporters also point out that the last government made two premature and illegal appointments to the court.

After eight years of rule by a pro-market and pro-European Union party, those changes involve greater state spending on the economically disadvantaged and pushing for other deep change consistent with Law and Justice's Catholic, nationalistic and anti-migrant agenda.

Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a lawmaker for Law and Justice and a key backer of the new laws, denounced those opponents who say they are fighting for democracy.

"The defense of democracy is just a smoke screen. You are defending dark interests," he told opposition lawmakers.

That elicited an uproar in the assembly and chants of "down with communism!" The communist accusation was an apparent allusion both to the alleged anti-democratic nature of the laws and to Piotrowicz's own past as a communist-era prosecutor.

The laws then passed easily, 235 to 181, thanks to the Law and Justice's majority control of the lower house.

The package of bills goes next to the Senate, where it is expected to get a quick OK. It can also expect the support of President Andrzej Duda, a party loyalist.

Andrzej Zoll, a former head of the tribunal, denounced the legislation ahead of the vote, saying it "will lead to the end of the functioning" of "one of the most important organs of the state."

One provision requires that cases be adjudicated by a panel of at least 13 of the court's 15 judges. That is a change from the current practice, which allows a much smaller number of judges to rule on each case. Civil rights groups say that will allow the court — which already faces a backlog of some 200 cases — to take up far fewer cases, slowing down its work considerably.

Another provision will require a two-thirds majority for rulings to be valid, rather than the current simple majority. Critics say that it will be make it extremely difficult for the court to reach valid rulings on controversial issues — and essentially unable to block some disputed legislation.

"We lawyers and citizens watching this believe the main idea is to tie the hands of the judges so they cannot react in a timely manner," said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, an activist with the pro-democracy We Are Watching You initiative.

Opponents also criticize the speed with which the legislation was put through, with very little time left for public consultations. One lawmaker said that made the government appear shady.

"Rushing is an inherent part of a banana republic," Killion Munyama, a Zambian-born lawmaker with the Civic Platform party, said to laughter and applause.

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The spelling of Killion Munyama's name has been corrected in this story.