11 January 2017

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal under PiS control descends into legal chaos

December 2016 brought some new developments in the Polish constitutional crisis. Judge Rzepliński stepped down from the court and a new set of three statutes was introduced to allow Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) to take over full control over Poland’s constitutional court, the Constitutional Tribunal (CT). The statutes gave President Duda the right to appoint a Commissioner to carry out the election of the new President of the CT, bypassing the constitutionally enshrined right of the Vice-President to do so. The general public in Poland expected the “old” judges and Vice-President Biernat to strongly and publicly oppose the introduction of this Commissioner  (Judge Przylebska, elected by Law and Justice) and the related usurpation of power, but were disappointed. It seems that Judge Biernat has opted for a strategy of passive resistance (more on this below).

Przylebska’s first action as Commissioner was to allow the three “anti-judges” (Cioch, Morawski and Muszynski) to assume their judicial duties and participate in the meeting to appoint a new President of the CT. Numerous controversies resulted, evidence of which can be seen in the minutes of the meeting, which were leaked to a Polish NGO.

First and foremost, it is not clear whether the decision to appoint Przylebska as Commissioner overseeing selection of the new President of the CT was countersigned by the Prime Minister, as required by law. Minutes from the meeting show that Judge Zubik requested an explanation on this issue, to which Muszynski responded that Duda’s order to appoint Przylebska was countersigned electronically.  However, no proof was offered, obliging the judges to continue on the basis of this word-of-mouth assurance that the document had been signed.

The second controversy was raised by Judge Pszczółkowski. Despite being a former Member of Parliament for PiS, he produced a long letter to Przylebska in which he explained that the meeting was null and void without the presence of Judge Rymar. This argument had already been raised by all judges, including Biernat.
Pszczółkowski elaborated that by eliminating the requirement for a quorum for selecting the candidates, the temporary legislation inadvertently creates the requirement for all judges to vote on presenting the judges to President Duda. That last requirement was not met, as Judge Rymar was absent.

Finally, instead of two ballots (one for selection of the candidates and another for presenting them to President Duda), Przyłebska decided to have only one (on selection of the candidates). Przyłebska presented the results of this single ballot to President Duda as the resolution of the Election Meeting. This is clearly an egregious procedural error: the second resolution should be taken by all the judges, not by Przylebska alone.

The consequence is that Przylebska’s status as the President of the CT can be legally questioned. This throws further doubt on her professional capacity to fulfil the role, most clearly evidenced in her issuing power of attorney to Muszynski to substitute for her in presidential duties. This unprecedented use of power of attorney has been broadly criticized by experts as a de facto abdication from the role.

For the time being, the crucial issue is the reaction of the “old” judges to the decisions by Przylebska to allow the anti-judges to sit on the panels. Yesterday, Judge Rymar sent a clear signal that he will not accept the illegally elected anti-judges in his panels, after discovering that Muszynski sits on his panel instead of Przylebska. He adjourned the relevant hearing indefinitely. This form of passive resistance has been welcomed by commentators disappointed by the lack of official resistance in December.

Nonetheless, the prospects for Poland’s constitutional court look grim. Przylebska’s actions serve to diminish its authority, and the participation of the anti-judges in the panels jeopardizes the legality of its verdicts. This is probably what Law and Justice wanted to achieve: it is much easier to govern without a strong constitutional court.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Matczak, Marcin: Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal under PiS control descends into legal chaos, VerfBlog, 2017/1/11, https://verfassungsblog.de/polands-constitutional-tribunal-under-pis-control-descends-into-legal-chaos/, DOI: 10.17176/20170112-091523.


  1. Angsthase Thu 12 Jan 2017 at 07:26 - Reply

    I am really disappointed about the quality of this article. The author does not even try to be objective. He presents the situation in Poland in a partial way.

    In addition to it this article is useless from a legal perspective. The author does not even mention one single legal norm.

    Furthermore the author tries to force an absurd opinion without legal basis that there had to be two ballots “one for selection of the candidates and another for presenting them to President Duda”.

  2. Zdzifffko Thu 12 Jan 2017 at 08:47 - Reply

    Very good description of the situation, however a bit hermetic for those who do not follow the situation in details.
    I am not sure what Angsthase (in the comment above) has in mind talking about being objective. For almost all lawyers in Poland situation is clear, we are facing brutal attack of the ruling party on the Constitutional Court. Yes there are some who support Gov. but for lawyers the situation is quite clear. In political comment one could objectively describe what different parties claim. But this is rather legal analyses (presented in common language). One critical comment. I think minutes from the meeting of judges did not “leak”, I think couple of subjects, including Helsinki Foundation, submit formal request for information based on FoI Act and they received documents from the court.

  3. Leser Thu 12 Jan 2017 at 09:40 - Reply

    Interesting read. Maybe difficult to understand to those not into the matter, but delving into new matters – so.-called “learning” – can be hard. 😉

    The articles presented here over last months have demonstrated even to an outsider like me how a court system can be effectively dismantled, how rule of law and legitimacy can be eroded without firing a single bullet – and that this is possible even after the NSDAP did this in Germany.

    Yes, I made a Nazi reference. And I think it’s applicable here.

  4. Steven Verbanck Thu 19 Jan 2017 at 14:12 - Reply

    A technical question : In the EU Commission recommendation, I read: “Only six judges, including the three judges unlawfully nominated, took part in the meeting…” (p. 6 “Whearas (25)” in http://ec.europa.eu/newsroom/document.cfm?doc_id=40988)

    But I tought there were seven PiS-appointed judges by then : the five ‘december-judges’ and two appointed later on (Zbigniew Jędrzejewski since april 2016 and Michał Warciński replacing Andrzej Rzepliński from 20 december 2016)

    Who of those seven was absent?

  5. Marcin Matczak Tue 14 Feb 2017 at 10:19 - Reply

    Apologies for not responding earlier. Judge Pszczolkowski was absent. And he later criticised Przylebska for convening the meeting without the presence of other judges which was an unexpected sign of his independence.

  6. Steven Verbanck Tue 21 Feb 2017 at 12:17 - Reply


    “an unexpected sign of his independence” : never too late to get cold feet?

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