Protests in Poland as Warsaw Forces Supreme Court Justices Into Early Retirement

People shout slogans during a demonstration against government plans of judicial system reforms on June 26 in front of the European Commission Representation office in Warsaw. The European Union has moved to sanction Warsaw for undermining judicial independence in the country. Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

The European Union on Monday announced it would launch legal proceedings against member state Poland, marking it the second time Brussels has sought to sanction Warsaw for undermining judicial independence in the country.

A new law targeting Poland's Supreme Court takes effect on Tuesday, forcing around 40 percent of the country's 72 Supreme Court Justices into early retirement. Critics said the new law, which lowered the obligatory retirement age of the country's Supreme Court justices to 65, is another attempt by the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) to consolidate power.

PiS would now be able to fill the vacant Supreme Court seats with judges loyal to the party. The law would also increase the number of Supreme Court justices from 72 to 120, allowing PiS to fill more than two-thirds of the Supreme Court seats with new loyalists.

"The law is the final nail in the coffin for Poland's legal system, completing PiS's takeover of the judiciary. Following the Constitutional Court and the National Council of Judiciary—the institution that appoints judges all over the country—the governing party would have full control over the Supreme Court," Zselyke Csaky, a Central European expert with the think tank Freedom House, told Newsweek.

Protesters have taken to the streets to voice their opposition to the new law, and protests are expected to continue throughout Tuesday and Wednesday.

The European Union, based in Brussels, monitors member states to ensure they uphold democratic and legal norms. Poland has come under fire over the past three years for attempting to pass a number of reforms that Brussels said undermined the rule of law.

People hold placards during a demonstration against Government plans of Judical system reforms on June 26, 2018 in front of the European Commission Representation office in Warsaw. Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

Exactly one year ago, Poland's President Andrzej Duda signed a bill allowing the justice minister, who is appointed by the Law and Justice Party, to hire and fire judges in the country's lower courts. PiS has also been accused of targeting and harassing local judges.

The EU resorted to Article 7—an EU sanctions procedure to hold countries accountable for rights violations—against Warsaw for the first time in December 2017. It had never been used before.

"The European Commission is taking action to protect the rule of law in Europe. Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country's judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority," reads an announcement from the European Commission. "In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law, from the protection of investments to the mutual recognition of decisions in areas as diverse as child custody disputes or the execution of European Arrest Warrants."

But critics say the European Union's efforts have been ineffectual.

"The EU's current approach, which is based on dialogue and good faith, has been a failure. The Polish government has been unwilling to even pay lip service since the Article 7 proceedings started more than half a year ago. It is going down on a dangerous route full speed ahead, dismantling the very building blocks of a functioning democracy," Csaky told Newsweek.

Poland's government argues that the reforms are necessary to modernize the country's judicial system. Nevertheless, Poland has one month to respond to the European Union's most recent complaints or the country will be brought before the European Union's Court of Justice.

Since the right-wing, populist Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015, the government has moved to restrict the free media, and to curb women's access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care.