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Why Poland is protesting Supreme Court reforms

The Warsaw Uprising Monument pays tribute to lives lost following a failed Polish uprising against Nazi occupiers in 1944. The Polish resistance timed their attack in coordination with a Russian offensive that forced Germany’s army to retreat. Unfortunately, Russia halted their advance, leaving resistance members to fight Germany without any help from the allies (despite Winston Churchill’s best efforts). Once the resistance was defeated, Germany conducted mass executions and razed Warsaw, destroying nearly 90% of the city, leading to the death of nearly 200,000 civilians.

On Tuesday night, Polish protestors gathered around the memorial, writes the New York Times:

As the sun set in Warsaw, crowds gathered in front of a memorial dedicated to those who died in the city’s 1944 uprising against Nazi Germany, chanting an old but familiar refrain: “Solidarnosc.” But now, calls for solidarity were not directed at an occupying force — or at Communist rule, which the labor-backed Solidarity movement brought down in 1989 — but at a democratically elected government, albeit one the demonstrators fear is undermining the system they fought so hard to build.

“We are here because of the destruction of the judiciary in Poland,” said Kamila Wrzesinska, who stood amid a sea of Polish and European Union flags. Organizers passed out placards with one word: “Constitution.”

Protesters are responding to new government reforms that force the immediate dismissal of any Supreme Court judge once they reach 65 years old; of the court’s 72 members, 27 would be forced to retire, including Supreme Court Chief Malgorzata Gersdorf. Judges looking to remain with the Supreme Court can request an exemption from President Andrzej Duda.

Look at it like this: If these reforms were implemented in the United States, the United States President could force the retirement of five justices because they’re 65 years old or older. He could keep the Judges who share his ideologue and replace the one’s that do not share his party’s philosophy. The United States President can currently appoint anyone to a vacancy, but their appointment must be approved by Congress. Once they become a Supreme Court Justice, which is a lifetime appointment, Congress is the only body that can forcefully remove a justice through impeachment

Critics argue that this empowers the populist Law and Justice party, maintaining judges with similar ideologies and replacing opposing judges with those harboring friendlier views. The European Union, who filed a lawsuit, is sounding the alarm:

“If there is a systemic threat to the rule of law, we cannot simply turn a blind eye,” said EU Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis. “We cannot simply say it is a purely national issue. So, where the separation of powers is weakened in one country or worse, the independence of the judiciary is challenged in another, it becomes a European issue, which affects our whole community.”

“If implemented in their current form, these laws would have a very significant negative impact on the independence of the judiciary and would increase the systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland,” said EU vice president Frans Timmermans, who added that they could enact Article 7 of the EU treaty suspending a member state’s voting rights.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended the reforms to the European Parliament on Wednesday. “Many Europeans don’t like the direction the European Union is going in,” he said. “When they feel that they’re losing influence on the future of Europe and the world, then they’re going to oppose what’s happening.” You can call that populism,” he said, “but at the end of the day, we are going to have to ask questions asked by citizens and their expectations.”

The populist movement has taken root in central Europe, with Poland and Hungary electing more authoritarian governments, challenging western governments and their pro-Democratic ideals. Italy is forming a populist coalition and Germany is shifting towards tougher immigration policies, mostly a result of concessions by a weakened Angela Merkel who is desperately keeping her own coalition alive. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen and the National Front; a right-wing party that rode the populist wave and surprised many observers for their sudden rise.

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