Poland speeds changes to Supreme Court amid EU row

Protesters display a giant European Union flag during a demonstration against Polish government plans of judicial system reforms in front of the European Commission Representation office in Warsaw June 26, 2018

Poland adopted legislation Friday aimed at speeding up the process of replacing the country's disputed Supreme Court chief justice who has refused to step down under a retirement law the EU has called a threat to judicial independence.

The new law is part of a raft of controversial judicial reforms by the government of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party that replace scores of judges all the way up to the Constitutional Tribunal and Supreme Court.

The PiS insists the changes tackle corruption and overhaul a judicial system still haunted by Poland's communist era.

But the opposition, democracy watchdogs and the European Union have warned they undermine judicial independence, the rule of law and ultimately democracy.

The new legislation, passed in a vote of 230 to 24 with four abstentions, speeds up the process of choosing a successor to Supreme Court chief justice Malgorzata Gersdorf.

It allows a replacement to be chosen when 80 judges are appointed to the Supreme Court, down from 110, in a near-full roster of its 120 justices.

The legislation is expected to pass easily in the Senate before being signed into law by PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda.

- 'Chief justice in exile' -

"I'll be the chief justice in exile," Gersdorf told reporters Friday in Karlsruhe, Germany's judicial capital, where she was invited to speak.

The new legislation comes amid weeks of turmoil over the forced early retirement of Supreme Court judges under a law lowering their pension age from 70 to 65.

The law, which came into effect two weeks ago, affects 27 of the court's sitting 73 judges including Gersdorf, who is 65.

Slamming the measure as a "purge" that breaches her constitutionally guaranteed six-year term ending in 2020, Gersdorf has refused to go, saying, "I'm fighting for the rule of law".

Gersdorf won backing from Europe's top judicial and bar authorities as well as rights groups.

- 'Sad day for democracy' -

Insisting, however, that Gersdorf was "no longer the Supreme Court chief justice", PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told parliament that "we need this law to break the deadlock," ahead of Friday's vote on the measures to speed her replacement.

The opposition insists the PiS law "destroys the rule of law" in Poland by putting the courts under political control.

Other critics accuse the PiS of attempting to stack the Supreme Court -- responsible for guaranteeing free and fair elections -- ahead of autumn local elections.

"It's a sad day for Polish democracy," liberal opposition leader Grzegorz Schetyna said.

Meanwhile the EU has launched legal action against Poland over the controversial Supreme Court retirement rules introduced by the PiS that could end up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), where the bloc's top tribunal can strike them down.

Brussels also triggered Article Seven proceedings against Poland in December over "systemic threats" to the rule of law posed by the judicial changes, which could eventually see Warsaw's EU voting rights suspended.

Adding to the chaos, new details emerged this week about the communist past of Supreme Court judge Jozef Iwulski, who agreed to "stand in" for Gersdorf during her recent holidays, while the PiS and President Duda regard him as the interim Supreme Court chief justice.

Communist-era court documents quoted by Polish media suggest Iwulski took part in kangaroo court trials that sent dissidents to jail, something the 66-year-old said he "cannot recall".

Gersdorf dismissed criticism of Iwulski's activity in military courts during the Communist Party's brutal 1981 martial law crackdown on the Solidarity trade union.

"He was forced to work in military courts during martial law -- only young people may not know the consequences of refusing to render verdicts in those cases -- the consequence was going to jail," Gersdorf said.