Poland rushes vote to unblock top court before Obama arrives

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s parliament on Thursday rushed through legislation governing the Constitutional Tribunal, an attempt to address international concerns about the rule of law a day before President Barack Obama and other Western leaders arrive in Warsaw for a NATO summit.

But critics of the right-wing ruling Law and Justice party strongly criticized the legislative changes as little more than cosmetic. They said the moves do almost nothing to ease concerns over the court, which has been paralyzed by the government and made unable to act as a check on its power.

“We are dealing with the end of democracy. Poles will have to be afraid of their state,” said Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a lawmaker with one of the opposition parties, Modern.

The tribunal has been the focus of a divisive political battle since November, sparking criticism by the European Union and the United States and leading to a string of street protests in Poland.

The government rushed to amend the rules governing the Constitutional Tribunal before Obama meets on Friday with Polish President Andrzej Duda. Obama, a former constitutional scholar, is expected to raise the matter with Duda and observers said the rush vote was to allow Duda to have good news for the U.S. president.

The legislation drafted by the ruling party was passed 238-173 Thursday in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament. It goes next to the Senate, where the ruling party also has a majority and is expected to pass it into law.

Soon after taking power last year Law and Justice passed a number of changes to the laws regulating the court, which has a role similar to that of the U.S. Supreme Court. One provision required that cases be adjudicated by a panel of at least 13 of the court’s 15 judges. Another provision required a two-thirds majority for rulings to be valid, rather than the simple majority in the past. Another required that the court take up cases in the chronological order in which the complaints were filed.

Critics said all of those changes would prevent the court from being able to act quickly and reach valid rulings on some issues.

A European human rights body made up of constitutional experts, the Venice Commission, criticized Poland in March for effectively paralyzing the tribunal, and said such actions could undermine the country’s democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The new legislation passed Thursday softens some of the measures. For instance, it says rulings can be made by a simple majority vote, and that 11 rather than 13 judges must take part in rulings.

However, some of the elements have been kept. For instance, judges will still be required to take up cases chronologically rather than in the order deemed most important, and a minority of judges will be allowed to delay a ruling by up to six months.

Critics say those rules and others will still hamper the court’s ability to function as intended.

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