Judicial System

Judicial System

The constitution of 1952 reflected the communists' disdain for the concept of judicial independence. As in the Soviet system, the Polish judiciary was viewed as an integral part of the coercive state apparatus. The courts were not allowed to adjudicate the constitutionality of statutes. Instead, the function of constitutional review was within the purview of the legislative branch until 1976, when it passed to the Council of State. A key provision of the Round Table Agreement was the reemergence of an independent judiciary, a concept rooted in the Ustawa Rzadowa, the constitution of 1791. By 1992 most of the communist political appointees had left the Supreme Court, and at all levels new judges had been recruited from among qualified academic and courtroom barristers. On the other hand, in 1992 Poland's body of laws still contained a motley assortment of Soviet-style statutes full of vague language aimed at protecting the communist monopoly of power rather than the rule of law itself. A complete overhaul of the legal system was a universally recognized need.

The National Judicial Council

A critical step in establishing the autonomy of the judicial branch was the Sejm's vote in December 1989 to create the National Judicial Council. The twenty-four member council, consisting of judges from the national, district, and local levels, serves a four-year term and has the primary function of recommending judgeship candidates to the president. Another basic function of the body is to oversee the entire judiciary and establish professional standards.

The Supreme Court

Reform of the appointment mechanism for justices was a necessity to ensure an independent judiciary. In the communist era, the Council of State appointed Supreme Court justices to five-year terms, making selections on purely political grounds. Because the Supreme Court had jurisdiction over all other courts in the land, the political reliability of its members was an important consideration in appointment decisions. Judicial reform after the Round Table Agreement provided that the president appoint Supreme Court justices from a list prepared by an independent National Judicial Council, and that justices be appointed for life terms. The presiding officer of the Supreme Court, called the first chairman, is appointed from among the Supreme Court justices by the National Assembly upon the recommendation of the president. Dismissal from the chairmanship follows the same procedure.

The Supreme Court reviews the decisions of all lower courts; hears appeals of decisions made by the district courts, along with appeals brought by the minister of justice (who simultaneously serves as the prosecutor general) and the first chairman of the Supreme Court; and adopts legal interpretations and clarifications. The court is organized into four chambers: criminal, civil, labor and social insurance, and military. Because of its heavy case load, the Supreme Court is a large body, employing 117 judges and a staff of 140 persons in late 1990.

Lower Courts

In 1990 the system of lower courts included forty-four district and 282 local courts. These numbers were scheduled to be increased to forty-nine and 300, respectively, in 1991. Thereafter the local courts were to concentrate on minor, routine offenses, and the district courts were to take on more serious cases and consider appeals of local court verdicts. Misdemeanors generally are handled by panels of "social adjudicators," who are elected by local government councils. In 1991 these panels heard about 600,000 cases, of which about 80 percent were traffic violations. To relieve the heavy appeals case load of the Supreme Court, ten regional appeals courts were set up in late 1990 to review verdicts of the district courts.

The Supreme Administrative Court

The Supreme Administrative Court was established in 1980 to review and standardize administrative regulations enforced by government agencies and to hear citizens' complaints concerning the legality of administrative decisions. In 1991 the court heard some 15,600 cases, mostly dealing with taxes, social welfare issues, and local government decisions. As of late 1990, the court employed 105 judges and 163 staff members.

The Constitutional Tribunal

The Constitutional Tribunal was established by the Jaruzelski regime in early 1982 to adjudicate the constitutionality of laws and regulations. The Sejm appoints the tribunal's members to four-year terms. Initially, the body did not have authority to review laws and statutes enacted before 1982. Findings of unconstitutionality could be overruled by the Sejm with a twothirds majority vote. Selected by the Sejm for their superior legal expertise, the members of the Constitutional Tribunal are independent and bound only by the constitution. In 1992 the tribunal made controversial findings that government plans to control wages and pensions retroactively violated rights constitutionally guaranteed to citizens.

The State Tribunal

The Jaruzelski regime created the State Tribunal in 1982, by the same law that formed the Constitutional Tribunal, in response to instances of high official corruption in 1980. The State Tribunal passes judgment on the guilt or innocence of the highest office holders in the land accused of violating the constitution and laws. The body's twenty-seven members are appointed by the Sejm from outside its membership for a term coinciding with that of the Sejm. Judges in the State Tribunal are independent and bound only by the law. The chairperson of the State Tribunal is the president of the Supreme Court. As of mid-1992, the State Tribunal had never heard a case.

The Prosecutor General

The communist-era Office of the Chief Prosecutor was abolished following the Round Table Agreement. Thereafter, the minister of justice has served as the prosecutor general. The mission of the prosecutor general is to safeguard law and order and ensure prosecution of crimes. Since 1990 the prosecutors on the district and local levels have been given autonomy from the police and are subordinated to the minister of justice, who has assumed the role of the defunct prosecutor general. In 1992 many prosecutors remained from the rubber-stamp judicial system of the communist era, however. Because they had no understanding of democratic judicial practice, these officials seriously inhibited the new legal system in dealing with the wave of crime that accompanied the transition to a market economy.

The Commissioner for Citizens' Rights

The concept of a people's ombudsman to safeguard individual civil rights and liberties was first proposed by the Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth (Patriotyczny Ruch Odrodzenia Narodowego--PRON) in 1983. Four years later, the Sejm enacted legislation establishing the Office of the Commissioner for Citizens' Rights. Appointed to a four-year term by the Sejm with Senate approval, the commissioner is independent of other state agencies and answers only to the Sejm. The commissioner's mandate is to investigate on behalf of individual citizens or organizations possible infractions of Polish law or basic principles of justice by public officials, institutions, or organizations. Although the commissioner may review the administration of the courts, he or she may intercede only in matters such as scheduling of cases. In military or internal security matters, the commissioner does not investigate evidence but channels cases to the appropriate jurisdiction. As a public ombudsman, the commissioner confronts the accused party and conveys official displeasure at a given action or policy. The commissioner also may request the initiation of civil, criminal, or administrative proceedings and appeal to the Constitutional Tribunal to review a law's constitutionality or consistency with a higher statute.

The public greeted the creation of the Office of the Commissioner for Citizens' Rights with enthusiasm. Lacking an established screening mechanism, the new office received more than 55,000 complaints in 1988 alone. The commissioner also conducts systematic inspections of prisons in response to inmates' complaints. Following the inspections, the commissioner issued a comprehensive report, which has resulted in a more humane, less congested prison system. In 1990 a national opinion poll revealed that at that point the ombudsman enjoyed the highest popularity of any Polish politician.

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