EU Asks Court of Justice to Impose 'Daily Penalty' Over Poland's Judicial System

The executive branch of the European Union is calling for the European Court of Justice to punish Poland's nationalist government financially, the latest development in a years-long conflict involving the country's judicial system.

The European Commission asked Europe's highest court to "impose financial penalties on Poland to ensure compliance" with an order issued in July. Poland's Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, a body imbued with the power to discipline judges by the right-wing ruling party, is at the center of the conflict.

In a tweet, European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova said "the rulings of the European Court of Justice must be respected across the EU."

The chamber is said to be a way for the ruling party to pressure judges to issue a ruling in favor of authorities. The EJC suspended the body in June, but it has defied the courts and continues to operate.

The commission wants the EJC to impose "a daily penalty" on Poland until it cooperates with the EU, improves its judicial system and tosses the new laws seen as undermining judicial independence.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Polish Protest
Members of Obywatele RP movement (Citizens of Poland) try to block the entrance to the Supreme Court building in Warsaw, Poland, on April 21, 2021. - The Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court is to consider the application for the detention and forced bringing to the prosecutor's office of judge Igor Tuleya. WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

To date, while Poland's ruling party has filled the ranks of the top courts, there are many lower court judges who act independently and have issued rulings that go against the government's interests.

The commission did not seek an exact fine, but in the only other similar case — an illegal logging dispute also involving Poland in 2017 — the court ordered the Polish government to pay 100,000 euros ($119,000) a day until it complied. It's unclear how long the ECJ might take to rule.

The EU's executive body also launched the first step in new legal action against Poland for not complying with a separate ECJ decision that the country's rules for disciplining judges doesn't conform with EU law. Brussels said if Warsaw doesn't respond satisfactorily within two months that it will take the case back before the court.

In Warsaw, Poland's Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said the EU had no right to interfere in the organization of the judicial system in EU nations, alleging that the EU is applying double standards to Poland. He also accused the EU of carrying a "hybrid war" against Poland's legal system.

But justice activists in Poland welcomed the move. Maria Ejchart-Dubois, a lawyer with Free Courts, a group fighting for the independence of judges, said that fines and legal action are the "only way to stop the Polish authorities."

She told The Associated Press that despite the government's vow to abolish the Disciplinary Chamber, the body scheduled 48 meetings in September and commissioners are instituting further proceedings against Polish judges.

Legal observers see some of the justice policy changes imposed by Poland's right-wing government as an attempt to undermine the power of EU laws within the country and even step away from the bloc. Poland joined the EU in 2004, agreeing to abide by its rules and regulations.

Concerns over democratic backsliding in Poland are also holding up the country's access to billions of euros in European money to help revive its economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that nobody has the right to lecture his country on democracy, as talks with Brussels on access to the recovery fund dragged on.

Earlier this year, Morawiecki asked Poland's top court to rule on whether the Polish Constitution or EU law has primacy in the central European nation.

The Constitutional Court has been delaying its judgment, with the next session now set for September 22. Should it give precedence to Polish law, the ruling would pose a threat to the EU's legal order.

European Justice Court
FILE - In this file photo taken on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015 a woman walks by the entrance to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The European Union moved Tuesday to force Poland to comply with the rulings of Europe's top court with plans to seek daily fines against the nationalist government in Warsaw linked to a long-running dispute over justice independence in the country. Geert Vanden Wijngaert/File