The European Union's highest court on Friday ordered Poland to reverse a law leading to the removal of nearly a third of the nation's Supreme Court judges, and to reinstate those who were dismissed.
The temporary stay from the European Court of Justice also prohibits the appointment of new judges — most of whom are friendly to President Andrzej Duda and his right-wing populist party — and it orders authorities to restore the judicial branch to its composition before it enacted the law lowering the retirement age of judges from 70 to 65 in July.
By changing the retirement age, by forcing out more than 20 judges since it was first implemented — including the First President of the Supreme Court — and by granting President Andrzej Duda discretion to choose who gets to continue serving and name replacement judges, "Poland has infringed EU law," the ECJ said in its decision.
The stay goes into effect immediately and will remain in place while the ECJ determines the legality of Poland's new rules under European Union law. Failure to comply with the ruling could subject Poland to hefty fines. The ECJ said it will deliver a final judgment in the case at a later date.
Polish officials offered mixed messages following the announcement. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters at an EU-Asia summit in Brussels, that the government had not reviewed the court's order.
"I can say that certainly after thorough analysis we will take a position," he said, according to Reuters.
Beata Mazurek, a spokeswoman for Duda's Law and Justice party, assured the public over Twitter that Poland "is a member of the E.U. and will act in accordance with the current E.U. law."
But Krzysztof Szczerski, Duda's cabinet chief, took a contrary position — telling The Washington Post that "it's impossible for law to work in reverse."
Duda and the governing party maintain that the court overhaul is necessary to root out corruption by justices dating back to the communist era and to fix an inefficient system.
Critics argue it is the latest step in a three-year onslaught of authoritarian reforms to the judiciary system that has put too much power in the hands of the government.
In December 2017 the European Commission initiated what are known as Article 7 proceedings against Poland, a process that could lead to sanctions, including a loss of the country's voting rights in the E.U. It is the outcome of a rift that has strained relations between the commission and Duda and his party since 2015.
Monika Frackowiak, a Polish district court judge and member of Iusticia, the country's largest judicial association, told The Washington Post that Friday's ruling "has fundamental importance," adding that the group hopes "it will somehow stop this process of demolishing the judiciary."
Covadonga de la Campa, Interim Director of Amnesty International's European Institutions Office, also welcomed the ruling.
"Today's court order makes it clear that it is unacceptable for Poland to ignore the EU's most fundamental principles, in defiance of ongoing legal proceedings before the EU's top court," De la Campa said in a statement. "Polish authorities have been hastily appointing new judges despite the ongoing infringement case and Article 7 proceedings. It is alarming that, despite the rule of law being one of the cornerstones of the EU, things have gone this far."