Supreme Court judge in Poland defies law as protests mount over forced retirement
Critics say ruling party's policies amount to a shift toward authoritarian rule
Polish Judge Malgorzata Gersdorf walked into the Supreme Court building on Wednesday morning, defying new legislation forcing her to retire as court president and putting the judiciary on a collision course with the government.
Hundreds of supporters chanting "constitution" and singing the Polish national anthem surrounded her at the entrance as she told reporters: "My presence here is not about politics, I am here to protect the rule of law."
The legislation is at the centre of mounting conflict between Warsaw's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and the European Union, which accuses the government of trying to control the judiciary and subvert democratic standards.
The new law, which took effect at midnight, cuts the retirement age to 65 from 70 for Poland's Supreme Court justices. Up to a third of them, including 65-year-old Gersdorf, could be forced to retire unless they are granted an extension by President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally.
The nationalist ruling party argues its legal overhaul is needed to shake up a judicial system it says it steeped in communist-era thinking and power structures.
"Each EU state has the right to shape their legal system according to their own traditions," Prime Minister Morawiecki told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.
But Gersdorf, who has been the president of the Supreme Court since 2014, has said she believes the legislation is unconstitutional and cannot be implemented.
"I want to show that the constitution and the violation of the constitution are two different things," Gersdorf told the crowd.
"I still hope that the legal order will be restored in Poland."
The crowd chanted "Judges are not removable!" and "Constitution!" and then marched to the Presidential Palace to show their disapproval of the law co-authored by Duda.
After addressing the crowd, Gersdorf entered the court house in central Warsaw. Officials there said she went into a meeting with other judges and would address the media later in the day.
After staging protests on Tuesday outside the Supreme Court, Polish pro-democracy activists have vowed to hold more rallies around the country on Wednesday.
The protest turned out smaller than a crowd of 4,000 people a day earlier, disappointing Lech Walesa, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former president credited with bringing down Polish communism in 1989, who came from Gdansk to Warsaw to express his objection to the court changes.
"With such an amount we will not win much," Walesa said in front of the protesters outside the Supreme Court building in the centre of Warsaw. "It is getting serious when they ruin our courts. Really, sooner or later this may lead to a civil war."
'An entirely internal matter'
"We are moving toward a dictatorship," said Joanna Tworog, a 65-year-old webmaster in the crowd outside the court. "What if I have a court case against someone from PiS and they will be able to influence judges. These changes affect me personally."
Through legislation and personnel changes, PiS has already taken de facto control of much of the judicial system since coming into power in 2015, including the constitutional tribunal and prosecutors, who now report directly to the justice minister.
Critics at home and abroad say the ruling party's policies, which also include tighter control of public media, amount to a shift toward authoritarian rule.
The conflict has isolated Poland within the EU, where most governments are critical, while also exposing the bloc's inability to rein in governments it believes contradict core EU values.
The European Commission opened a fresh legal case against Poland over the Supreme Court changes on Monday, saying that they undermine judicial independence in the largest formerly communist member of the EU.
Warsaw also faces the threat of losing its voting rights in the bloc under a procedure launched late last year in response to the judiciary reforms. Hungary, also facing criticism over democratic standards, has pledged to block such a move.
The eurosceptic PiS government rejects criticism, saying EU treaties do not give Brussels institutions the power to influence national matters such as the judiciary.
"Let me mention a fundamental issue. The court system ... is an entirely internal matter," PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was quoted as saying by Gazeta Polska newsweekly in an article published on Wednesday.
The party's standing in polls has held steady at around 40 per cent throughout the dispute, well above any single rival party.
With files from The Associated Press