Polish president to veto bills seen as assault on judicial independence

Poland's president says he will veto two contentious bills that are widely seen as assaults on the independence of the judicial system and are part of a planned legal overhaul by the ruling party that has sparked days of nationwide protests.

Proposed changes sparked days of nationwide protests

Anti-government protesters raise candles and placards reading "Constitution", as they gather in front of the Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland on Sunday. On Monday, President Andrzej Duda said he would veto two of the bills being protested. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

Poland's president announced Monday that he will veto two contentious bills seen as assaults on the independence of the judicial system by the ruling party and which have sparked days of nationwide protests.

The decision marks the first time that Andrzej Duda has broken openly with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice party. Duda was hand-picked by Kaczynski as the party's presidential candidate in 2015 and has loyally supported the party's conservative nationalist agenda, not vetoing any of its laws until now.

Duda said he would veto the two controversial bills of three recently passed by lawmakers aimed at overhauling the judicial system. One would have put the Supreme Court under the political control of the ruling party, giving the justice minister, who is also prosecutor general, power to appoint judges.

Duda said that the country's justice system as it works now is in need of reform, but he said that the changes lawmakers had proposed threaten to create an oppressive system and that the protests of recent days show that the changes would divide society.

He said that there is no tradition in Poland for a prosecutor general to have such large powers and he would not agree to that now.

Experts consulted

He also said that he consulted many experts before making his decision, including lawyers, sociologists, politicians and even philosophers. But he said the person who influenced him the most was Zofia Romaszewska, a leading anti-Communist dissident in the 1970s and 1980s.

He said Romaszewska told him: "Mr. President, I lived in a state where the prosecutors general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do everything. I would not like to go back to such a state."

Polish President Andrzej Duda announced on Monday that he will veto two contentious bills widely seen as assaults on the independence of the country's judicial system. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

Duda said he was also vetoing a bill changing the functioning of the National Council of the Judiciary. The change, among other things, would have given lawmakers the power to appoint judges, politicizing the courts.

However, he said he was going to sign a third bill that reorganizes the functioning of local courts.

Duda's step won the praise of members of the political opposition who had been urging him to veto the bills, seen by many Poles and the European Union as attacks on the separation of powers in the young democracy.

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a leading member of the opposition party Modern, called it a step in the right direction and an "act of courage." She said Duda's decision also shows the power of civic protests.