The beginning of the end for Poland’s so-called “judicial reforms”? Some thoughts on the ECJ ruling in Commission v Poland (Independence of the Supreme Court case)




Laurent Pech, Professor of European Law, Middlesex University London

Sébastien Platon, Professor of Public Law, University of Bordeaux

Imagine a faraway land where a government and a parliament dominated by the same party decide to retroactively lower the retirement age of the judges working for the country’s supreme court. Imagine that this change is being presented as a “reform” (allegedly) needed to hold to account judges (allegedly) “shamefully involved” in the country’s previous communist regime which however ended about thirty years ago. Imagine that all of this done with authorities claiming “there is nothing going on in [the country] that contravenes the rule of law” as “judges should always be on the side of the state”.

Surely we cannot be talking about a country belonging to the EU. Sadly, you would be wrong to think so. Indeed, the retirement measure described above was at the heart of the infringement action initiated by the European Commission against Poland last July and which resulted, earlier this week, in the European Court of Justice’s first ruling on the compatibility with EU law of one of Poland’s so-called “judicial reforms”. 

This post will explain the extent to which the Court’s ruling may be considered a landmark one, and the Court’s main findings, before assessing the ruling’s immediate and potential impact.

1. A landmark ruling

For the very first time, the Court of Justice has found a national government to have failed to fulfil its obligations under the second paragraph of Article 19(1) TEU which provides that “Member States shall provide remedies sufficient to ensure effective legal protection in the fields covered by Union law.” This is far however from the only “EU law first” one may “credit” to the current Polish authorities:

-          Poland was indeed the first ever EU Member State to be subject to the Commission’s Rule of Law Framework in January 2016;
-          The first EU Member State to be threatened with the payment a fine of at least €100,000 per day in November 2017 by the ECJ should it continue to ignore an interim order adopted by the same Court in July 2017;
-          The first EU Member State to be subject to Article 7(1) TEU proceedings in December 2017;
-          The first EU Member State to have seen its “judicial reforms” provisionally suspended by the ECJ via two interim orders adopted in Octoberand December2018.

It has now become the first EU Member State to have been found by the ECJ to have failed to fulfil its Treaty obligations by violating both the principles of the irremovability of judges and judicial independence.

As will be shown below, the Court has forcefully and compellingly rejected each one of claims made by the Polish government, including the most recurrent one whereby the Court of Justice would lack jurisdiction to review the multiple, never-ending changes made to the organisation of the Polish judiciary.

2. The Court’s findings

2.1 Organisation of the Polish national justice system as an allegedly exclusive competence immune to EU review

According to the Polish government, supported by the Hungarian government, the organisation of the national justice system constitutes a competence reserved exclusively to the Member States, which would imply that that EU institutions, including the Court of Justice, cannot examine Poland’s “judicial reforms” in light of EU law requirements.

The Court easily explains why this argument cannot survive any serious scrutiny and does so by initially and unusually reminding the Polish government that “as is apparent from Article 49 TEU, which provides the possibility for any European State to apply to become a member” of the EU, Poland “freely and voluntarily committed” itself to respecting and promoting “the common values referred to in Article 2 TEU”, including the rule of law (§ 42). Furthermore, while the Court agrees that “the organisation of justice in the Member States falls within the competence of those Member States”, this obviously cannot be construed as a carte blanche to violate its EU law obligations, not to mention the fact that requiring Poland to comply with its EU law obligations is not akin in any way to exercising “that competence itself” (§ 52). This is merely a reminder of the longstanding difference between the applicability of EU law and the competence of the EU, which explains why EU law can apply in situations where the EU has no competence to legislate.

With respect to the Polish government’s argument that the EU principle of judicial independence can be applicable only in situations governed under EU law, the Court merely reiterates what it previously held in the Portuguese judges ruling. National authorities must respect the principle of judicial independence even in situations where national “judicial reforms” do not implement EU law. Article 19(1) TEU indeed covers any national court which may rule “on questions concerning the application or interpretation of EU law”, in which case any national measure affecting the independence of the said court falls within the fields covered by EU law.

In the present case, it was obvious that Article 19(1) TEU was applicable as it was common ground that Poland’s Supreme Court “may be called upon to rule on questions concerning the application or interpretation of EU law and that, as a ‘court or tribunal’, within the meaning of EU law, it comes within the Polish judicial system in the ‘fields covered by Union law’ … so that that court must meet the requirements of effective judicial protection” (§ 52). It follows that Polish authorities cannot adopt measures which undermine its independence without activating the application of EU law.

2.2 The lowering of retirement age as allegedly required to bring the Supreme Court’s retirement regime in line with the general retirement regime

According the Polish government, it follows from the Court’s own case law, that “that the Member States retain the option to adapt the employment conditions applicable to judges and, thus, their retirement age, in particular in order, as in the present case, to bring that retirement age into line with that provided for in the general retirement scheme, while improving the age structure of officers of the court concerned” (§ 67).

Anyone familiar with the situation in Poland would have immediately found this defence rather surprising. Indeed, the ruling party “has long rallied against what it calls a self-serving “caste” of judges who distort justice for ordinary citizens”. Furthermore, the Polish government’s own “White Paper” of March 2018 indicates that “the reform of judicial retirement age is justified with historical experiences of communism, the failure to account for the past for many years, and pathological [sic] mechanisms of the functioning of courts that have been perpetuated for years” (para 99).

Not unsurprisingly, the ECJ easily came to the conclusion that the forced early retirement of Supreme Court judges is not compatible with the principle of irremovabilily, which is a guarantee of independence. While phrasing this delicately, the Court all but explicitly states that the Polish government has deliberately sought to mislead it when it refers to the information contained in the “explanatory memorandum to the draft New Law on the Supreme Court” and on the basis of which one may have “serious doubts as to whether the reform of the retirement age” was not in fact made “with the aim of side-lining a certain group of judges of that court” (§ 82).

The Court could have stopped there but if only to make it clearer to any future government which might be tempted to follow a similar path, the Court proceeds to perform a proportionality test. In a few words, the Court sees no reason why, for the sake of standardising retirement age, the judges of the Supreme Court should be forced into retirement when all other workers have a right to retire (or not) before holding that the lowering of retirement age with immediate effect, without any transitional measure, is in any event disproportionate.

2.3 Discretionary prerogative granted to the Polish President as (allegedly) required to protect the judiciary

While possibly difficult to believe, the Polish government claimed that “the authorisation conferred on the President of the Republic to decide as to whether to allow” Supreme Court judges “to continue to carry out their duties once they have reached retirement age” constitutes a “prerogative, the specific purpose of which is to protect the judiciary both from interference by the legislative authority and from that by the executive authority” (§ 103).

In other words, it is suggested that the Polish President, itself part of the executive, is the best placed to protect the judiciary from interference by both the executive and legislative branches by deciding alone and in the absence of any substantive conditions, procedural rules and access to judicial review, when to authorise a Supreme Court judge not to be forcibly retired. This is by the way the same office holder who has deliberately ignored court orders, repeatedly attacked Polish judges while also questioning the independence of the Polish ECJ judge and the authority of the ECJ. Even Kafka could not have imagined something more Kafkaesque.

For the Court, the inescapable conclusion is that “by granting the President of the Republic the discretion to extend the period of judicial activity of judges of that court beyond the newly fixed retirement age”, Poland has violated Article 19(1) TEU (§ 124). While explaining why this is so, the Court makes noteworthy observations in relation to the new “National Council of the Judiciary” (NCJ), arguably established in breach of the Polish Constitution and since suspended from the European Networks of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) due to its lack of independence. In a nutshell, the Court explains that the prior involvement of the NCJ cannot “save” the presidential extension regime organised by the Law on the Supreme Court as the NCJ has proved unable to deliver properly reasoned opinions based on objective and relevant criteria to the President for the purposes of authorising Supreme Court judges to continue to carry out their duties.

3. Immediate and potential impact

In a strong editorial, the Financial Times described the Court’s ruling as a landmark one which “will help buttress the rule of law in the EU against authoritarian leaders who have been chipping away at democratic checks and balances with impunity”.

We agree with this assessment.

While the ruling addresses only one of the multiple serious rule of law problems identified by the European Commission in its Article 7 proposal, it does not merely fully confirm the accuracy of the Commission’s diagnosis in the present infringement action but also indirectly its general diagnosis regarding the growing systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland. This legal win is also bound to considerably strengthen the weight of the Commission’s arguments within the framework of ongoing Article 7 proceedings.

The Court’s ruling also establishes a solid de facto precedent with respect to any future attempt in Poland or elsewhere to take control of a court via a retroactive lowering of the retirement age of judges under false pretences. The ruling will similarly add to the growing body of evidence which shows repeated violations by the Polish government of the principle of loyal cooperation in its dealings with the Commission, the Council and now the ECJ.

The Court does not explicitly tackle the question of the NCJ, which was established in 2018 in open violation of what the Commission recommended. The ruling however makes it apparent that the consultation of the NCJ cannot be viewed as an effective safeguard to protect judicial independence. The Court will get a chance to make this crystal clear in Joined Cases C-585/18, C-624/18and C-625/18. One may expect the Court to follow AG Tanchev and find the new NCJ as lacking the required independence from the legislative and executive authorities. The ramifications of such a finding would be extremely significant as it would essentially mean that every single decision made by the ENCJ-suspended NCJ would be have been made by a compromised body acting in breach of its mandate to safeguard the independence of courts and judges. The potential impact could be extremely significant especially as regards the Polish courts which include the “judges” nominated by the tainted NCJ and appointed by the Polish President.

With respect to the new disciplinary system, the Court could not have more clearly indicated that it shares the Commission’s concerns when it stated that its case-law requires that the rules governing the disciplinary regime “must provide the necessary guarantees in order to prevent any risk of that disciplinary regime being used as a system of political control of the content of judicial decisions” (§ 77). This is virtually the same phrasing used by the Commission when it announced the launch of its latest infringement action regarding Poland’s “reforms” on 3 April 2019. We understand this as an implicit encouragement for the Commission to promptly continue with its action. This means inter alia that it is only a matter of time before the so-called “Disciplinary Chamber” is found to violate the requirements of judicial independence required by EU Law. Again, the ramifications of such a finding would be extremely significant as all of the Disciplinary Chamber’s decisions to date would then have been made by a body masquerading as a court.

Notwithstanding the above, the direct practical consequences of the Court’s ruling will remain modest. Indeed, a significant number of Supreme Court judges had previously refused to subject themselves to the plainly unlawful retirement regime both as a matter of Polish constitutional law and EU law, with all relevant Supreme Court judges requested to return to work following the first interim order by the Chief Justice (the President of the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) did the same in relation to the SAC judges who were forcibly retired as well). Furthermore, Polish authorities essentially conceded defeat after the final interim order adopted by the ECJ last December (while doing so it however sought to discreetly neutralise some pending preliminary ruling requests in order to prevent the ECJ from examining the NCJ and the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber in light of the EU requirements of judicial independence).

Most importantly, this ruling does not directly engage with one of the decisive issues raised by the Commission: the decision of the Polish President to increase the number of posts within the Supreme Court, which will eventually enable the ruling party to capture it. However, considering the arguably unlawful nature of the procedure having been used by the Polish President to appoint individuals to the Supreme Court, this issue should eventually reach the ECJ as it was the subject of the most recent preliminary ruling request adopted by a not yet captured chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court on 12 June 2019.

While not addressed by the Court’s ruling, it is to be hoped that within the framework of the infringement action regarding the Polish law on ordinary courts, the ECJ will tackle the forced retirement/dismissal of61 ordinary court judges. In the absence of any pending actions raising this issue, the ECJ is unlikely to be able to address the dismissal of over 70 court presidents (and 70 vice‑presidents) which took place in 2017-18 on the back of a six-month transitional regime “which gave the Minister of Justice the power to arbitrarily dismiss them without any specific criteria, without justification and without judicial review”. Similarly, to the best of our knowledge, there is no legal action which would enable the ECJ to look into the “the very high number of dismissals and demotions among the Polish prosecutors”.

Lastly, one fundamental issue which is yet to reach the ECJ is the lack of effective constitutional review in Poland ever since the Constitutional Tribunal was unlawfully captured in December 2016, and whose independence and credibility, as recently noted by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, “have been seriously compromised by the persisting controversy surrounding the election and the status of its new President and several of its new judges”. This is a key issue which is however bound to arise sooner or later especially if, on the back of successful electoral results, the current ruling party is unable to resit the temptation to further instrumentalise the captured “Constitutional Tribunal”, for instance to justify non-compliance refuse to comply with ECJ rulings on specious constitutional grounds. 

4. Key lesson

The key lesson we draw from this ruling is that any “dialogue” with authorities engaged in rule of law backsliding should be systematically accompanied with the launch of as many infringement actions as possible and as soon as possible.

In the present case, one may not forget how seemingly difficult some within the Commission found it to accept the need for prompt legal action in the first place. To justify legal inaction, we often heard the argument that Article 7 TEU should be considered a lex specialis and therefore exclude the launch of Article 258 infringement actions on issues already highlighted as problematic under any ongoing Article 7 procedure. As observed by AG Tanchev, Article 7 TEU And Article 258 TFEU must however be considered as separate yet complementary procedures which can be invoked in parallel.

To maximise the effectiveness of infringement actions and “prevent the completion of constitutional capture before any eventual ECJ ruling”, accelerated infringement actions ought to be the default position when a Member State openly violates the rule of law. The Commission ought to also systematically request the ECJ to decide these actions under an expedited procedure while also simultaneously request relevant interim measures so as to prevent authorities from changing the facts on the ground before the ECJ is able to issue final rulings.

What the Commission has done and achieved in the present case should be commended. It should also be “considered the new template to follow” whenever judicial independence of national courts is under threat due to autocratically-minded authorities.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 9, chapter 10
Photo credit: France 24

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