Poland’s top judge burns with verdicts and political connections. She insists she is independent. – POLITICS
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WARSAW – Julia Przyłębska, one of Poland’s most senior judges, may have spoken to the prime minister’s office before making critical decisions. And she is close friends with the country’s de facto leader.
But if you hear Przyłębska say that, she’s meticulously independent.
Once during a nearly hour-and-a-half interview, Przyłębska, the 62-year-old head of Poland’s Constitutional Court, recently handed over an elegant copy of Poland’s constitution with an article marked with a yellow post-it.
The article reads: “Judges of the Constitutional Court shall be independent in the exercise of their office and subject only to the Constitution.”
“I can assure you that my performance is guided by that very principle,” she said, while seated in front of a somber landscape by Polish artist Stefan Popowski and across from three senior tribunal officials who listened in silence.
But the more Przyłębska proclaims her independence, the more her opponents accuse her of being nothing more than a puppet of the ruling far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland.
At the beginning of July, the most tangible evidence so far fell into their hands. According to emails leaked from the Polish prime minister’s office, Przyłębska discussed three specific cases with the prime minister’s chief of staff before making a decision. The damaging revelations added another long-standing fact: Przyłębska is friends with Jarosław Kaczyński, the stubborn PiS leader, meets with him on a private basis, even as chairman of the tribunal to discuss art and literature, but — as she claims – never politics.
“In the past, the tribunal’s judgments have caused controversy,” said Bartłomiej Przymusiński, chairman of Iustitia, an association of judges that often finds itself at odds with the government, in Poznań, Przyłębska’s hometown in western Poland. “But never before has it been assumed that judges are inspired by politicians. It became a new normal under Przyłębska.”
The leaked emails cemented the image of the Przyłębska-led tribunal as a PiS tool. The rulings had given PiS a helping hand in its ongoing fight for judicial reforms and reinforced the government’s Eurosceptic narrative by challenging the EU’s fundamental legal foundations. They also encouraged Warsaw’s collision course with Brussels over rule of law concerns, leaving the country without access to billions of EU funds to recover from pandemics.
However, Przyłębska, like Mateusz Morawiecki, Prime Minister of Poland, fault unnamed “Russian provocateurs” for leaking the emails to “destabilize the situation in Poland”.
“I don’t consult anyone about decisions,” she said.
An unlikely rise
Until Przyłębska was elected a member of the tribunal by the PiS in December 2015, she led a rather humble existence.
Przyłębska was a judge at the District Court in Poznań and for a short time chairwoman of the court’s social security department. For a time she was also consul at the Polish embassy in Germany – a rather modest portfolio for a post that is considered the crown jewel of a legal career.
Law wasn’t even Przyłębska’s first choice of studies. Despite being the daughter of a Poznań notary public, she wanted to study art restoration or Hungarian (she claims to have a basic knowledge of Hungarian), but there were no vacancies the year she graduated from high school.
But it was precisely this biography – solid but unremarkable, far from cosmopolitan Warsaw – that made Przyłębska a perfect fit for PiS’s vision of the country’s new right-wing elite.
The old one, Kaczyński has long argued, was inefficient and demoralized. This new wave of jurists, who occupied high-ranking positions in Kaczyński’s Poland, were selected in the same way he selected his inner circle: by putting loyalty above traditional qualifications. The tribunal was no different – over the years it has become stuffed with three allegedly wrongly appointed judges, two former hardliners in the PiS parliament and the Justice Minister’s closest aide.
The result, critics say, is a compliant supreme court poised to sanction — and enable — PiS policies.
One of Przyłębska’s most prominent moves came last October, when the Constitutional Court ruled that some elements of the EU treaties are incompatible with Poland’s constitution. The ruling essentially called into question the EU’s entire legal framework, which rests on the notion that where the EU has been given powers, its laws take precedence over those of individual countries.
Another ruling claimed the Polish constitution was also partially incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, a covenant that has been pushing European law for decades.
In practice, these rulings helped the PiS government cement controversial judicial reforms in the country and ignore a number of reprimands from EU courts over these moves.
“PiS MPs used the court to legitimize the changes introduced in Poland,” said Marek Safjan, a judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union and one of Przyłębska’s predecessors as head of Poland’s Constitutional Court. “And they seem confident of the end result.”
Przyłębska vigorously denies this.
“It was not a judgment against the EU or Poland’s place in the EU,” she argued. “On the contrary, it was a judgment that revealed many misunderstandings in the interpretation of the EU treaties.”
And she claims her interactions with PiS bigwigs had no bearing on her decisions. Her connections to powerful PiS figures are purely social, she explained. For example, she admits to knowing Kaczyński since the 2010s but insists the friendship is a shared cultural interest.
“He is a fascinating man who tells many interesting stories about life; a witness to history,” she said, but declined to reveal if they are spoken by their first names. Kaczyński, on the other hand, famously called Przyłębska his “social discovery”, a quip that she found “pleasant” but which also provoked opponents to brand her as “Kaczyński’s cook”.
“There is no such rule preventing someone from associating with people they met prior to assuming the post. And I must immodestly say that I cook very well,” she remarked, citing Lithuanian cold beet soup as her signature dish.
Przyłębska’s former colleagues simply see an unqualified person essentially working for PiS.
POLITICO reached nearly a dozen judges who had worked with Przyłębska at the Constitutional Court. Only one agreed to talk about her at length and insisted on anonymity. The others responded by phone or email, succinctly expressing frustration at what is theoretically one of Poland’s largest judicial bodies – the head of the Constitutional Court.
“I can’t say anything positive,” said one judge.
“Our contacts were kept to a minimum because, in short, we weren’t curious about each other,” recalled another.
“Working with her has had a negative impact on my health,” said another.
“I don’t know this lady,” said another, “and let’s keep it that way.”
One judge, who decided to exchange views over coffee, called Przyłębska “obedient Julia” and described chaotic leadership, laziness and allegations that she illegally manipulated the composition of the tribunal to arrive at PiS-friendly decisions.
“She’s a poor lawyer,” said the person. “Compared to what the Tribunal used to be, it’s a lump in terms of quality of work and culture of behavior.”
Przyłębska never paid much attention to such criticisms. “I can look at myself in the mirror,” she says. “I have done nothing that would violate my independence. A judge has to be courageous.”
Their bravery, for lack of a better word, cannot be denied. Another controversial tribunal ruling in October 2020 virtually ended legal abortion – also fully in line with PiS policy – and provoked the biggest protests in Poland since the fall of communism in 1989. Another massive wave of demonstrations erupted later, when a 30-year-old woman died after being denied an abortion. your family recorded a conversation with a doctor who explained that he would not perform the procedure because of the strict anti-abortion law.
“The verdict was not directed against women. There was absolutely no situation in which the tribunal’s verdict tied the hands of the doctors,” said Przyłębska, privately a staunch Catholic, visibly worried.
Still, despite being disregarded by mainstream legal circles – and with nearly 51 percent of the people who recently said the tribunal was dependent on the government – Przyłębska seems keen to garner some respect.
She presents herself as an accomplished, successful woman who, against all odds, has found the balance between a career and a happy private life.
“The fact that I have had a career and had two sons says a lot about my husband, who I have been with for over 40 years. Really, we’re not from another planet,” she said. “First and foremost, we are not opportunists.”
But Przyłębska’s family also caused problems. Her husband, philosophy professor Andrzej Przyłębski, was Poland’s ambassador to Germany until the end of January and is known for his dedicated defense of PiS policy. Her son Marcin now works for PZU, Poland’s listed insurance company. For some, it’s a prime example of the family exploiting the PiS system.
Przyłębska, on the other hand, can imagine a life outside the PiS roof: when she retires she wants to write a novel for which she has already thought of a plot.
The opposition has other plans for her. “If an investigation shows that she has coordinated her decisions with PiS politicians, she should be liable to prosecution,” said Krzysztof Śmiszek, a lawyer and member of the Bundestag for the Left Alliance.
“She can write this novel behind bars,” he added with a smile.