The chief justice of Poland’s Supreme Court – who was appointed under the previous Law and Justice (PiS) government – has accused the speaker of parliament – who is a leading figure in the new ruling coalition – of acting “in violation of the law”.
The accusations mark a further intensification of the legal dispute over two former PiS government ministers recently handed jail terms in an abuse-of-power case, as well as of the broader conflict over Poland’s judicial system following its overhaul by PiS during its eight years in power.
In a further development today, President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, invited the speaker of parliament, Szymon Hołownia, for talks in a bid to resolve the impasse. The two were, however, unable to reach an agreement.
The Supreme Court has overturned a decision to end the parliamentary mandate of a former PiS minister sentenced to jail for abuse of power.
But the decision was made by a chamber of the court created by PiS and found to be illegitimate in previous rulings https://t.co/5M6oeuearv
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 4, 2024
In rulings issued on Thursday and Friday last week, the Supreme Court’s extraordinary review and public affairs chamber overturned decisions by Hołownia to confirm the expiration of the parliamentary mandate of PiS MPs Maciej Wąsik and Mariusz Kamiński, the two former ministers in question.
Hołownia had issued those decisions in December a day after Wąsik and Kamiński were given prison sentences and banned from holding office over their investigation into a corruption scandal.
However, the pair argue that they had already been pardoned of those crimes in 2015 by President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally. That argument was also accepted by the Supreme Court in its rulings last week.
The court’s spokesman, Aleksander Stępkowski, said that the presidential pardons – which were issued while Wąsik and Kamiński were still appealing against an original conviction – meant that the subsequent final conviction “could not have any effects in the sphere of public law”.
“Therefore the persons concerned did not lose their electoral rights…[and] the provisions regarding the expiry of their [parliamnetary] mandate could not be applied” said Stępkowski, quoted by broadcaster TVN.
Two former PiS ministers who yesterday received prison sentences and bans from public office have lost their status as MPs
The decision was confirmed by the speaker despite an appeal by the president, who believes his 2015 pardon of the pair remains valid https://t.co/bdGYjahc0i
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 21, 2023
However, those findings are mired in controversy. Last year, another chamber of the Supreme Court found that Duda’s pardons were invalid because they were issued before a final, binding conviction had been issued against Wąsik and Kamiński.
But that decision was itself rejected by another of Poland’s top courts, the Constitutional Tribunal (TK), which found that the Supreme Court did not have the right to question a presidential veto.
The TK is widely seen as being under the influence of PiS, which nominated all its current justices. The Supreme Court, by contrast, is a more divided body, with most of its judges appointed after PiS’s judicial reforms but a significant minority still remaining from before those changes.
Thirty judges on Poland’s Supreme Court – almost a third of those working at the institution – have declared they will not adjudicate alongside colleagues appointed after the government’s judicial overhaul, which they say rendered such nominations invalid https://t.co/jsFW62gWih
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) October 17, 2022
That latter division has also spilled over into the Kamiński and Wąsik case. When the pair decided to appeal against Hołownia’s decision to extinguish their mandates, Hołownia forwarded those appeals to the court’s labour chamber, which is still led by one of the “old”, pre-PiS judges, Piotr Prusinowski.
However, under PiS’s reforms, the appeals should be considered by the extraordinary review and public affairs chamber, which was created by PiS and is staffed entirely by “new” judges appointed under the party’s rule.
But both the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have found that chamber to not be a lawfully established body because the body responsible for nominating judges is no longer legitimate due to PiS’s judicial reforms.
Hołownia said last week that he had directed Wąsik and Kamiński’s appeals to the labour chamber in part because he wanted them to be “entrusted to an adjudicating panel that would not undermine the trust that the judiciary should inspire in a democratic society”.
A chamber of the Supreme Court created by the former PiS government is „not a tribunal established by law”, the EU’s top court has found.
The same chamber is due next month to rule on the validity of the recent elections at which PiS lost power https://t.co/gXgHSobD8C
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 22, 2023
It was for this reason that the Supreme Court’s chief justice, Małgorzata Manowska, who is one of the “new” PiS-appointed judges, today accused both Hołownia and Prusinowski of “illegal actions”.
In a statement, she said that she was “dismayed” and “outraged” by the actions of the pair, which “constitute a significant violation of the legal order” and “may raise citizens’ doubts about the apolitical nature of the Supreme Court as a judicial body”.
More specifically, she accused Hołownia of acting illegally by himself deciding which chamber to direct the appeals to, against the wishes of Wąsik and Kamiński. She likewise said Prusinowski had acted unlawfully by registering the cases in his chamber and by doing so in consultation with Hołownia.
Manowska also argued that last month’s CJEU ruling rejecting the validity of the extraordinary review and public affairs chamber related only to the narrow legal issue regarding EU law that it directly pertained to. She said that questions of Polish domestic electoral law, which are not regulated by EU law, are unaffected by the ruling.
Oświadczenie Pierwszego Prezesa Sądu Najwyższego w związku z bezprawnymi działaniami Prezesa Izby Pracy i Ubezpieczeń Społecznych SN oraz Marszałka Sejmuhttps://t.co/8yhPwWGZBg pic.twitter.com/nCqAXNn8QL
— Sąd Najwyższy (@SN_RP_) January 8, 2024
Today’s developments add to the uncertainty over what comes next for Kamiński and Wąsik. The pair insist that they are still valid members of parliament, who were reelected for a new four-year term at the 15 October elections.
This morning, Duda, who maintains that his pardon of the pair was and remains valid, announced that he had invited Hołownia for talks on the issue. Afterwards, however, the president said that the pair “did not reach agreement” on the issue.
Meanwhile, Hołownia himself announced that he was beginning a series of consultations on the issue with figures including justice minister Adam Bodnar, human rights commissioner Marcin Wiącek, and the head of the National Electoral Commission, Sylwester Marciniak.
Prezydent @AndrzejDuda: W 2015 r. zdecydowałem o ułaskawieniu Mariusza Kamińskiego i Macieja Wąsika, które w ostatnim czasie zostało określone podręcznikowym.
Moje stanowisko jest jednoznaczne: prerogatywa prezydencka została wykonana w 2015 r., a panowie zostali skutecznie… pic.twitter.com/qygLwRT0FK
— Kancelaria Prezydenta (@prezydentpl) January 8, 2024
Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.
Main image credit: Sejm (under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL)
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, EUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.