By Wiktor Szary
WARSAW (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Poles marched through Warsaw on Saturday demanding their government respect the constitution, in an escalation of a confrontation pitting the opposition, the country's top court and the EU against the ruling conservatives.
Waving Polish and EU flags and chanting "constitution", the crowds on the opposition rally called on the government to recognize a court ruling against divisive legal reforms.
The eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party has faced growing criticism from the European Union, the United States and rights groups since it swept to power in October and increased controls on media and other institutions.
Poland's constitutional court said on Wednesday that the government's decision to increase the number of its judges needed to make rulings was illegal, deepening a crisis that has stirred concerns about democracy and the rule of law in the EU's largest eastern member.
Critics say the reforms, which also change the order in which cases are heard at the top court, have made it difficult for judges to review, let alone challenge, the government's legislation.
But the government on Saturday repeated its refusal to publish the constitutional court's ruling in an official journal, saying the ruling itself was illegal and effectively leaving the court order in legal limbo.
It has argued the constitutional court is too powerful, allied to the last administration and determined to block reforms the party was elected to push through - charges dismissed by the court and rights groups.
RULING "NOT BASED ON LAW"
Large crowds gathered in front of a large banner reading "bring back the constitutional order" at the top court building, then marched toward the presidential palace in Warsaw's old town, filling a large part of the 3-km (2-mile) route.
In a Twitter entry, a city official put the number of protesters at more than 50,000, though that figure could not be confirmed independently.
"Years ago, Poles protested to change the political system," former World Bank economist Ryszard Petru, leader of the liberal opposition Modern party, told the crowds, referring to Poland's anti-communist Solidarity movement.
"Now we're protesting to make sure they don't suddenly change it."
Government spokesman Rafal Bochenek told a news conference earlier on Saturday it would not recognize the top court's verdict, saying the judges had broken the very regulations that they were ruling on when they made their statement.
"We uphold the position that Poland's government cannot publish the statement of some of the constitutional court judges, which is not based on law," Bochenek said.
He added that parliament would debate a separate statement by the Venice Commission, the rights body the Council of Europe's advisory panel, which called on the government to recognize the top court's verdict on the reforms.
The Venice Commission on Friday had said Poland's overhaul of the court would endanger "not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system."
(Reporting by Wiktor Szary; Editing by Andrew Heavens)