December 24, 2015 / 1:46 PM / 2 years ago

Poland asks Council of Europe about constitutional court rules

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland has asked human rights body the Council of Europe to comment on its plans to overhaul rules governing its constitutional tribunal that have raised European Union concerns about the rule of law.

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski listens to his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz (R) during a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, December 14, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The proposal would increase the number of judges needed to pass judgments and change the order in which cases are heard. The opposition has said it could paralyze the court’s work and make it difficult for its politicians to challenge the new ruling party’s legislation.

The EU executive sent a letter on Wednesday to Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski expressing concerns over the new rules, demanding their introduction be postponed.

However, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS)-led Senate passed the amendment overnight, with only the signing of its ally the president and publication in the official journal of laws barring it from coming into force with immediate effect.

Nonetheless, Poland’s Foreign Ministry said it had asked the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission to express its opinion about the proposed changes.

“The Constitutional Tribunal is one of the important elements of Poland’s institutional order and the controversy surrounding it should be ended as soon as possible,” its statement said.

The Council of Europe reports have no direct legal consequence, but EU policymakers work closely with the organization.

Polish President Andrzej Duda told German weekly magazine Der Spiegel: “There is a political dispute but in no way is democracy in danger.”

PiS, which won election in October, says it needs to change the rules governing the court to clear up the situation after it ruled on Dec. 3 that a previous amendment to the law passed by the previous parliament partially violated the constitution.

That amendment allowed the former parliament to name five judges at the start of October, but Duda refused to swear them in.

The PiS-controled parliament later canceled all five appointments, a move the opposition said was illegal, and named new judges on Dec. 2, which Duda immediately swore in.

The court ruled on Dec. 3 that parliament had the right to appoint two judges, and not five, with the remaining three having been legally chosen by the previous parliament.

The court, whose verdicts are final and cannot be appealed, said in the same ruling that the PiS-controled parliament violated the constitution by naming three more judges to the tribunal, because these positions were already occupied.

The European Commission said on Thursday it remained concerned, saying it is appealing to the Polish government not to implement this law before thoroughly assessing its effects.

“Frans Timmermans also underlines that he expects swift feedback from the Polish authorities with regards to the content of the letter,” the spokesman added about the letter from the vice president of the European Commission.

Reporting by Adrian Krajewski; Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Belgium, Marcin Goettig in Warsaw, Paul Carrel in Berlin; Writing by Adrian Krajewski and Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Alison Williams

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