Supreme Court legend quits in response to President’s decision
Judge Stanisław Zabłocki, President of the Supreme Court and chairman of the Criminal Chamber, has announced his retirement in conjunction with recent modifications to the court’s rules that force heads of chambers to assign cases to appointees whose status is presently being questioned before the European Court of Justice.
A letter dated 18 February 2019, in which judge Zabłocki explained his motives, has been received by judge Małgorzata Gersdorf, the First President of the Supreme Court, Polish top court’s spokesperson confirmed.
According to judge Zabłocki, the changes to the regulation governing the court’s rules recently issued by President Andrzej Duda will “inevitably lead to the deep destruction of the work of the Criminal Chamber, chaos and increased case backlogs”. Previously, the rules were enacted by the top court’s judicial assembly but since April 2018 this power is vested to the head of state.
Under the new rules, chairpersons of chambers assign cases to judges based strictly on alphabetical order. The law explicitly stipulates that no judge can be excluded from case allocations.
That provision seems designed to force the heads of chambers to allow appointees nominated by the new politically dependent National Council of the Judiciary (KRS) to adjudicate. However, the Polish high court and its counterpart, the Supreme Administrative Court, raised doubts about whether nomination proceedings before the KRS, which took place in August 2018, were in line with EU law. They have applied to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for preliminary rulings.
Apart from the newly-created Disciplinary Chamber as well as the Extraordinary Control and Public Affairs Chamber, the chairpersons of other sections have been refusing to assign cases to the new appointees until the EU court clarifies their status. The President’s amendment aims to bypass their decisions and yet again confirm the radical changes in the Supreme Court which the ruling majority in parliament have been introducing since 2016. One of them, the forced retirement of almost 1/3 of judges, was halted by interim relief granted by the ECJ in October 2018.
“For sure it was not just one of the most difficult decisions in my life – it was simply the most difficult one. I remained in the post until the final moment in which I could maintain a clear conscience and avoid violating the law. Now, I have exhausted all my ideas,” said judge Zabłocki in social media.
“I can only add that it is extremely difficult. Besides my family, the court was my whole life,” he emphasised.
The unexpected decision is said to undermine the morale of other lawyers struggling against threats to the rule of law in Poland, and for whom judge Zabłocki is a living legend.
His retirement will take effect on 20 February 2019, the date when President Duda’s amendments come into force.
Judge Stanisław Zabłocki, who formerly served as an attorney and represented victims of repression during the communist era in Poland, has served in the Supreme Court since 1991. In 2016, President Duda appointed him as a president of the top court and the chairman of the Criminal Chamber. Although he was one of the judges forced last year into early retirement, he continued his work as a justice until his reinstatement following the injunction by the ECJ.
by Patryk Wachowiec