WARSAW – Poland's Senate was poised Friday to approve legislation that would give politicians substantial influence over the country's Supreme Court — a move that critics say would defy the principles of the European Union.
EU leaders say the draft bill put forward by the country's conservative populist government would kill judicial independence and threaten the rule of law in the EU's largest member in Central and Eastern Europe. The U.S. Department of State voiced concern on Friday.
But Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, contends the judiciary still works along a communist-era model and harbors many judges from that time. Communist rule ended in 1989. He says the justice system needs "radical changes" to become efficient and reliable.
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo says the legislation is an internal matter and the government will not bow to any foreign pressure.
The legislation calls for firing current Supreme Court judges, except those chosen by the justice minister and approved by the president. It gives the president the power to issue regulations for the court's work. It also introduces a disciplinary chamber that, on a motion from the justice minister, would handle suspected breaches of regulations or ethics.
Controlled by the ruling party, the Senate is expected to approve the bill. In anticipation of the vote, crowds gathered Friday night for yet another protest in front of the Supreme Court building in Warsaw and in some other cities. About 200 protesters also gathered in front of President Andrzej Duda's vacation home in Jurata, on the Baltic coast, to demand that he doesn't sign the bill.
If approved by the Senate, the bill would only need Duda's signature to become law, since the lower house approved it on Thursday. Two other legislations on a key judicial body and on regular courts also await Duda's signature.
Duda won election as a Law and Justice member but has left the party in accord with Poland's tradition of a nonpartisan presidency. He is expected to sign the legislation.
The U.S. Department of State on Friday urged all sides to "ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland's constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers."
"We remain confident about the strength of Poland's democracy and the ability of Poles to address these issues through dialogue and compromise to ensure Poland's democratic institutions and system of checks and balances are fully functioning," the statement said.
Duda has so far not accepted an invitation for talks on the issue from European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister.
Speaking to Poland's TVN24, Tusk repeated his readiness for talks and said he was a "little disappointed" there has been no meeting.
"Poland's president should be concerned about a situation that is, let's say, serious," Tusk said.
Tusk said the steps the Polish government is taking toward the judiciary would allow it to limit social freedoms if it wants. He said they are in conflict with the EU's principles and are damaging to Poland's international standing.
But he conceded that, during his seven years as Poland's prime minister, he did encounter some resistance against judicial reform.
"The price for judicial independence, which is a value, was a lack of compulsory reform," Tusk said.
European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has warned that Poland could face a proceeding under Article 7 of the EU treaty, which makes possible sanctions in case of a "serious and persistent" breach of the EU's basic values. In theory, Poland could be deprived of its vote in the EU's council of governments, but such a move would have to be unanimous.
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said his government would never support sanctions against Poland.
Top judicial bodies in the neighboring Czech Republic took the unusual step of issuing a statement, calling the latest steps by the Polish government "an unprecedented attack on judicial independence."
The changes to Poland's legal system "represent an attack on the very basis of the functioning of the democratic state," said the statement signed by the heads of the Czech constitutional, supreme and supreme administrative courts, as well as by the supreme public prosecutor.