July 12, 2017 / 5:21 PM / 14 days ago

Poland's ruling PiS passes law on judges, opposition sounds alarm

3 Min Read

WARSAW (Reuters) - Lawmakers from Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party on Wednesday pushed through a bill to give parliament a greater say in appointing judges, a move that the opposition and rights groups said violated the constitutional separation of powers.

Despite calls from some judges and rights activists, the opposition has been unable to marshal any real public protest against the bill, reflecting Poles' frustration with a system in which even simple court cases can last years.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said in parliament that the process of appointing judges was undemocratic, with practically all powers being exercised by an unelected "judiciary corporation".

"We want to end corporatism and introduce the oxygen of democracy there," Ziobro said. "Because Poland is a democracy based on the rule of law."

"This is not court-ocracy. This is democracy," he said.

If approved by the upper chamber of parliament and signed into law by the president, the bill will end the terms of current members of the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS) and give parliament powers to choose 15 of its 25 members.

The Council has broad powers to nominate judges. Its members are currently mostly selected by the judges themselves for four-year terms.

The PiS holds a majority of seats in the upper chamber and President Andrzej Duda is an ally of the party.

Poland's constitution states that the terms of members of KRS which are chosen to the body last four years and critics of the bill say they can not be shortened summarily.

Opposition lawmaker Borys Budka said the bill would lead to an "extreme politicisation" of courts and would violate the principle of separation of powers.

The PiS denies this, arguing that the 1997 constitution states that the supreme authority in Poland belongs to the nation. It says its bill aims to redress the imbalance between the powers.

Since winning a 2015 election, the PiS party has brought the prosecutor's office and state media under direct government control. With unemployment down to a record low, opinion polls show sustained support for the party.

The PiS also overhauled the constitutional court, passing legislation that made it more difficult for the court to block new legislation. The overhaul has led the European Union's executive arm to accuse the government in Warsaw of undermining democratic checks and balances, charges PiS denies.

Reporting by Marcin Goettig; Additional reporting by Pawel Sobczak; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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