Top Polish Supreme Court justice refuses to quit amid chaotic judicial purge

Poland Supreme Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf
(Image credit: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, a new law in Poland took effect that aimed to force more than a third of the country's Supreme Court into early retirement, allowing the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party to take control of the last part of the judiciary it hasn't already subsumed. But many of the 27 targeted justices refused to step down, and Supreme Court president Malgorzata Gersdorf defiantly showed up to work, telling a crowd of supporters that she's "doing this to defend the rule of law and to testify to the truth about the line between the Constitution and the violation of the Constitution."

The government said it won't allow Gersdorf or other holdout judges to rule on any cases. Gersdorf, whose term is supposed to last until 2020, ended the day by saying she is going on "vacation," leaving Justice Josef Iwulski in charge. President Andrzej Duda had accepted Iwulski's petition to stay on the court — the law lowered the mandatory retirement age to 65 from 70; Iwulski is 66, Gersdorf is 65 — but Iwulski added to the confusion by saying "Duda neither appointed me, nor did he entrust any duties to me."

The Law and Justice Party, which has systematically taken control of the lower courts and Constitutional Court since winning power in 2015, says it's making the judiciary more responsive to the will of voters and ousting judges who were appointed when Poland was still Communist. Tens of thousands of Poles protested the Supreme Court purge, including one of the men who wrote Poland's Constitution, and Lech Walsea, a former president and the leader of the Solidarity movement that toppled Poland's Communist government in the 1980s. "Whoever turns against the Constitution, against the separation of powers, is a criminal," Walsea said Wednesday afternoon. Walsea also told a radio program that if the government doesn't reverse course, "there will be a civil war. ... This is the path of civil war. I'd like to avoid it."

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