Poland rushes vote to unblock top court before Obama arrives


WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s parliament on Thursday rushed through legislation governing the Constitutional Tribunal, an attempt to address international concerns about the rule of law a day before President Barack Obama and other Western leaders arrive in Warsaw for a NATO summit.

But critics of the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party strongly criticized the legislative changes as little more than cosmetic. They said the moves do almost nothing to ease concerns over the court, which has been paralyzed by the government and made unable to act as a check on its power.

“We are dealing with the end of democracy. Poles will have to be afraid of their state,” said Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a lawmaker with the Modern opposition party.

The tribunal has been the focus of a divisive political battle since November, sparking criticism by the European Union and the United States and leading to a string of street protests in Poland.

The government rushed to amend the rules governing the Constitutional Tribunal before Obama meets on Friday with Polish President Andrzej Duda. Obama, a former constitutional scholar, is expected to raise the matter with Duda.

European Council head Donald Tusk said he expects other European leaders to also raise the issue in talks.

“If we Poles want to be full members of the trans-Atlantic, especially in the defensive dimension, and of the European community … we need to represent the same system of values,” which he named as the rule of law, democracy and the separation of legislative and executive powers.

Otherwise “one day we will wake up and realize that we are much further away from Europe than we wanted to be,” Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, said on TVN24.

The legislation drafted by the ruling party passed 238-173 Thursday in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament. It goes next to the Senate, where the ruling party also has a majority, and to Duda, who is expected to sign it into law.

The new legislation softens some previous measures that Law and Justice introduce soon after it took power. It says rulings can be made by a simple majority vote, not two-thirds majority as previously, and also that 11 rather than previously required 13 judges must take part in rulings.

However, some of elements of their changes have remained. Judges will still be required to take up cases chronologically rather than in the order deemed most important, a system that can effectively block serious cases; and a minority of four judges will be allowed to delay a ruling by up to six months.

Critics say those rules and others will still hamper the court’s ability to function as check on the government’ legislative plans.

A European human rights body made up of constitutional experts, the Venice Commission, criticized Poland in March for effectively paralyzing the tribunal, saying that could undermine the country’s democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

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