That most languid of British Prime Ministers, Arthur Balfour, whose joining his uncle Robert’s cabinet (that’s the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury to you and me) is the origin the phrase “Bob’s your uncle”, said that “nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all.” And while the current Polish government does not approach governing in the same relaxed fashion, there are, it seems, certain things which are not important.
Currently top of the list of those things which are not important to the government is the two day visit to Warsaw which began yesterday by representatives of the Venice Commission, an international watchdog and advisory group on human rights to the Council of Europe. Being suitably dismissive, Ryszard Terlecki, head of the governing Law and Justice party (PiS) parliamentary club, told journalists on Monday: “The visit of the Venice Commission in Warsaw is very much a holiday tour. We do not attach particular importance to it. All that we had to tell the Commission, we already have.”
The Commission said that the focus of its investigation is the Act on the Constitutional Tribunal adopted by the Sejm this summer. The visit includes meetings at the Supreme Court, Parliament, the Ministry of Justice, the Constitutional Tribunal, the Ombudsman and the Chancellery of the Prime Minister. Six Constitutional Tribunal judges who were sworn in December and in April, refused to meet the three members of the Venice Commission.
Terlecki said on Monday that had met the members of the Commission earlier and had had mixed feelings about the meeting. “The members of the Commission were not really prepared for those talks when I took part. I had the impression that they did not even know which country they were in.” He added that at the time some members of the Commission were not really aware of what their visit was for. Which seems unlikely since this is the third visit of the Venice Commission to Poland since PiS formed the government last October.
For his part, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, said on Sunday that the visit of the Venice Commission to Poland is an event of “no importance”. He said that the lack of objectivity of the Commission, and its decision to “ignore Polish law” requires this body to be treated with “considerable reserve”. The party speaking with one voice.
Are they correct, is it a matter of no importance? Well that depends on whether one attaches any importance to the rule of law and whether, as the European Commission seems to think, the shenanigans over the Constitutional Tribunal, represent a threat to the rule of law. A spokesman for the Polish Supreme Court, Dariusz Świecki said that apart from the topics relating to the Constitutional Tribunal, the members of the commission also asked questions about “a certain atmosphere” surrounding the judiciary in Poland. “No one is claiming that the judiciary is functioning perfectly. Let’s just talk about how to fix these errors, eliminate them. Let’s not start the conversation with removing judges.”
Leaving aside the finer points of the Constitutional Tribunal dispute, there appears to be a view in some quarters that political interference in the judicial process is acceptable. Deputy justice minister, Patryk Jaki, threatened disciplinary action against the judge in a case in which he himself is the defendant. He accused her of ‘political’ bias and ‘wanting to take revenge against me’, because she had not accepted that he had parliamentary immunity when he accused a political opponent of running an escort agency. The Justice Minister Ziobro said that the judge had committed a gross breach of the law by ignoring Jaki’s right to parliamentary immunity and that this was typical of the “arrogance and lack of partiality of judges” in Poland, seemingly forgetting that he had benefitted from a similar failure to claim immunity by a deputy he had sued in 2011.
And since Ziobro is also the head public prosecutor, is the district prosecutor’s office in the Katowice’s investigation of the head of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, Andrzej Rzepliński, over potential breaches of duty and abuse of power arising out of his decision to exclude three judges voted in by the current parliament from sittings of the Tribunal, wholly disinterested, or as Rzepliński told PAP, “a feeble attempt to interfere in the independence and autonomy of the judiciary”?
Both Jaki and the district prosecutor may well be correct, but in the current atmosphere nobody is quite sure and therein lies the danger. If the judiciary is not truly independent, freedom is not truly freedom. Justice must not only to be done, but it must be seen to be done, rather than having to be seen to be believed.