The judges visiting the Polish capital descended the steps of the Supreme Court to applause and chants of “Thank you!” from a large crowd. Their show of support came amid a four-year struggle to protect judicial independence under Poland's populist government.
The European judges, joined by many Polish judges, lawyers and other citizens, marched from the high court to the parliament, some carrying Polish and European Union flags. City hall estimated that 15,000 people took part.
An organizer of the event read out a list of the countries represented, including Germany, Denmark, Italy and Croatia. Applause was strongest at the mention of Hungary and Turkey, where judicial independence has been curtailed in recent years.
“We have been in a difficult situation for more than four years,” Supreme Court judge Michał Laskowski told The Associated Press at the start of the march. “We are not alone. We can see that today. This is very, very important for us. I am really moved by this.”
The legislation giving the right-wing government new powers to fire or fine judges was passed by the lower house of parliament before Christmas and will be debated in the Senate next week. The EU and the United Nations have raised objections to the measure.
Opponents have characterized the legislation as the most dangerous blow to Poland's democratic foundations since the ruling Law and Justice party came to power in 2015. They said if the law is enacted, it would end the separation of powers in the country.
They also fear it would add to Poland’s marginalization in the EU and possibly even lead to its eventual departure from the bloc because the bill would give the authorities the power to also punish judges for rulings that are faithful to EU law.
Among those marching Saturday was a Turkish judge who said he lost his job in a purge of thousands of judges following a 2016 coup attempt. Yavuz Aydin, who has received asylum in the EU, said “the rule of law is worth fighting for -- in a peaceful way, in a silent way, in a democratic way.”
“You don’t understand how important it is until you lose it. We understood, but it’s too late,” Aydin said. “I hope Polish people understand this before it’s too late.” The Law and Justice government has taken control of Poland's Constitutional Tribunal, the public prosecution system and a body that appoints judges in the last four years. An EU court blocked measures that would have given it control of the Supreme Court.
The government argues that it seeks to bring order to a dysfunctional judicial system dominated by what it describes as a “caste” of privileged and sometimes corrupt judges. It says it also is trying to purge former communist judges from the judiciary.
Irish Supreme Court judge John MacMenamin, representing the chief justice of his country and the Association of Judges of Ireland, said the Polish government’s justification is not convincing. “A lot of time has passed since Poland became free again. I do not think there is a great deal of validity in that argument,” he said. “If judges are not independent, they are not judges.”
He said he came to Warsaw because judicial independence “is so fundamental to the protection of the rule of law and also to the protection of the integrity of the European Union,” stressing that it was EU membership that helped Ireland, once a poor country, become one of the world's richest.
Many Polish judges have continued to assert their independence, issuing decisions that in some cases have gone against the interests of the ruling authorities.