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Polish judge leaves office, hopes for judicial independence

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The retiring head of Poland's Supreme Court told her supporters Thursday that the fight for judicial independence will eventually win out over the right-wing government's push to take political control of the courts.

Thursday was the last day in office for Malgorzata Gersdorf, 67, whose is leaving at the end of her six-year term, two years after she fought off government moves to push her out early. Her departure is seen as likely to spell the end of the court’s fight against political pressure.

Nevertheless, in her departing remarks, Gersdorf said she believes that judicial independence will prevail because “people need independent judges.” A small, self-distancing crowd with a banner reading “Dziekujemy” (Thank You) gathered before the Supreme Court to thank her for her role in defending the independence of Poland’s judiciary.

In her remarks, Gersdorf said the support she has received from the public during the court’s clash with the government has “showed me that I need to be courageous.” Under Gersdorf as first president, Poland's top court has been critical of the changes that that the government has been making to the nation's justice system. The government’s drive to take control of the judiciary has led European Union leaders to condemn the moves and to start disciplinary measures against Warsaw.

The court has also questioned the legality of new legislation the government is pushing to allow the upcoming presidential election to be held by mail. It has the authority to question the legality of elections.

A court general assembly that should have shortlisted five candidates to succeed Gersdorf has been put off until social distancing rules against the coronavirus spread are lifted. President Andrzej Duda on Thursday appointed one of the court's judges, Kamil Zaradkiewicz to be the acting head. Critics said that according to the rules, the interim job should have been given to the court’s oldest judge, Jozef Iwulski.

Zaradkiewicz had previously questioned the validity of some of the rulings by another top court, the Constitutional Tribunal, a position that put him in line with the policy of the ruling Law and Justice party.

Retired Constitutional Tribunal judge Wojciech Hermelinski said the appointment of Zaradkiewicz was to show “who rules here” and was a way of “humiliating the Supreme Court.”

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