Hearing on Polish judges could deepen standoff with Europe

FILE PHOTO: Police officer stands outside Constitutional Tribunal building in Warsaw

By Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk

WARSAW (Reuters) -A top Polish court adjourned on Wednesday a sitting on whether a continent-wide human rights court had the power to question local judges' legitimacy in a case that could deepen the nationalist government's standoff with Europe.

In power since 2015, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party has clashed with European institutions over issues from judicial reforms and refugees to climate change and LGBT rights.

Critics accuse the PiS of trampling on European democratic values and politicising courts via appointments and disciplinary processes to entrench power. But the government says changes are needed to improve efficiency and clean up the judiciary of remnants of the 1945-89 communist era.

On Wednesday, Poland's Constitutional Tribunal heard parties in the case analysing the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights' authority to influence its national court system.

The tribunal moved to reconvene on Jan. 25.

The ECHR has several dozen cases pending over appointments of Polish judges. In the past, it has ruled against a "disciplinary chamber" for judges and said dismissals without appeals were an infringement of rights.

The Constitutional Tribunal ruled last year that some EU law was incompatible with Poland's charter, raising fears Warsaw might even leave the 27-member bloc eventually.

Poland has ignored multiple past rulings by European bodies over its judiciary and other matters, saying they were illegal and politically-motivated interference.

Marcin Szwed, from the Helsinki Foundation rights group in Warsaw, said the case, brought by the PiS-appointed prosecutor general, could be used to threaten judges.

"The goal could be to discourage Polish courts from using the European convention on human rights to question the legality of judges," he said, referring to clashes between newly-appointed judges and longer-serving peers.

One of the five judges hearing the case is considered illegally appointed by the ECHR.

Next month, the Constitutional Tribunal is also due to debate whether the EU's Court of Justice may impose interim measures or financial penalties on Poland.

(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)