Femke Gremmelprez, PhD Researcher and Academic Assistant, Department of European, Public and International Law, Research group Ghent European Law Institute
Despite the Court of Justice’s prominent role in the enforcement of EU law via the infringement procedure of Article 258 TFEU and the preliminary ruling procedure of Article 267 TFEU, the Court of Justice has predominantly been left out the enforcement of EU values, and the rule of law in particular. The EU Treaties remain silent with respect to an explicit competence for the Court of Justice to reinforce the rule of law in case deviant behaviour of Member States emerges. In addition, rule of law deficiencies have been prominently dealt with within the political discourse of dialogue in the context of the Rule of Law Framework and the Article 7 TEU procedure. However, the Court of Justice’s Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses judgment of 2018 has been a turning point in this regard. This blogpost will comment on the hearing in the Commission v. Poland case of 8 April 2019 (C-192/18) (hereafter ‘Ordinary Courts case’) and the opinion in the Commission v. Poland case rendered on 11 April 2019 (Case C-619/18) (hereafter ‘Supreme Court case’), two infringement procedures launched by the Commission before the Court of Justice after the Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses judgment.
The initial impulse of the Court of Justice
Although the outcome of the Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses judgment as such cannot be considered to be ground-breaking, the reasoning of the Court of Justice, in contrast, is all the more so. The Court of Justice, after all, established in this judgment that national courts which may be called upon to apply EU law, have to guarantee an effective judicial protection in accordance with the second subparagraph of Art. 19(1) TEU (para. 40 of the judgment). This ‘may’ formulation suggests that this applies to any court within the meaning of EU law. As Pech and Platon stipulate, “most if not all national courts are, at least theoretically, in this situation”, and therefore have to fulfil the requirement of effective judicial protection (see L. Pech and S. Platon, “Rule of Law Backsliding in the EU: the Court of Justice to the rescue? Some thoughts on the ECJ ruling in Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses”, on this blog).
As a consequence of the Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses judgment, judicial independence has become a criterion verifiable by the Court of Justice, and as such confirmed as essential in the enforcement of the rule of law (para. 40 of that judgment; see also last year’s judgment in LM (discussed here), para. 48). The Court of Justice has thereby shown itself committed to upholding the rule of law within the EU by operationalising the rule of law as enshrined in Article 2 TEU, reinforcing this value with a reference to the principle of sincere cooperation as enshrined in Article 4(3) TEU. This is necessary in order to achieve the proper functioning of the judicial cooperation system pursuant the preliminary reference procedure under Article 267 TFEU (Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses, paras. 41-43). Judicial independence not only presupposes that judges are remunerated sufficiently, but in light of the rule of law crisis, more importantly, also the protection against the removal from the office of the members of the national courts (Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses, para. 45).
Poland has made several reforms regarding the functioning and organisation of the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court and the ordinary judiciary whereby the independence of these bodies has been endangered (for an extensive overview of all the measures Poland has adopted over the last two years, see the Commission’s Reasoned Proposal in accordance with Art. 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union regarding the rule of law in Poland. In particular, the Polish government has adopted a law on the basis of which the general retirement age of the Supreme Court judges and the judges of the ordinary courts is lowered from 70 to 65, entailing that all judges currently in office who attained the age of 65 years, or will attain that age within 3 months from the entry into force of the law, will be retired. Following the reasoning of the Court of Justice in Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses, this measure would – to use the Court of Justice’s formulation – “impair the independence” of relevant courts and their members and as such be held incompatible with Art. 19(1) TEU, because these members of the judiciary are removed from their offices before the end of their initial term.
The revolutionary Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses judgment is the initial impulse of a series of cases before the Court of Justice within the context of the compatibility of national measures concerning the national judicial system with the standards following Article 19 TEU. Both the Commission, in the form of infringement procedures pursuant to Article 258 TFEU, and the national judges, in accordance with the preliminary ruling procedures as foreseen in Art. 267 TFEU, have raised issues about developments in Poland (see for instance the infringement procedures respectively lodged by the Commission against Poland on 15 March 2018 (Case C-192/18, the Ordinary Courts case) and on 2 October 2018 (Case C-619/18, the Supreme Court case), and the preliminary questions respectively referred by Polish judges on 9 August 2018 (Case C-522/18), on 3 September 2018 (Case C-558/18) and on 5 September 2018 (Case C-563/18).
The hearing in the Ordinary Courts case
On the 8th of April 2019, the hearing of the Ordinary Courts case took place before the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice. This case concerns, in particular, the Commission’s claims that the Polish measures lowering the retirement age applicable to the ordinary court judges, on the one hand, and granting the Minister for Justice the discretionary power to decide whether or not to extend the active service of the judge concerned, on the other hand, are contrary to Article 19 TEU, read in conjunction with Article 47 EU Charter (the right to a fair trial before an independent court). Although the Commission also raised the issue regarding the distinction between the retirement age for men and women working as a judge in its infringement action, the Court of Justice asked the parties to focus solely on the first plea during the hearing.
The Commission started with emphasising the importance of the adherence to the principle of effective judicial protection enshrined in Artilce 19 TEU, which is further clarified by Article 47 EU Charter as the right to be heard by independent and impartial judges, because the principle of effective judicial protection is not only the very essence of the rule of law, but also the very basis of the EU. Indeed, the Court decided already in the Achmea case (discussed here) that the EU judicial system, consisting of the Court of Justice and the national courts as EU courts, aims at ensuring the uniformity, effectiveness and autonomy of EU law (Achmea, para. 37).
Non-adherence to the principle of effective judicial protection would affect these key characteristics of EU law and the EU as such. Therefore, the contested measures violate the principle of judicial independence, and, thus, also the principle of effective judicial protection as foreseen by Article 19 TEU. In particular, as the Commission clarified by answering a related question posed by the Judge Rapporteur, the discretion of the Minister of Justice is problematic in the light of Article 19 TEU since he or she can decide to grant or refuse an extension of the active service of a judge beyond the retirement age without clear criteria, without motivation, without a possible appeal and without a clear time framework of the prolongation period. Referring back to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights with regard to Article 6(1) ECHR, the Commission invokes that this can be qualified as a means to put pressure on the judiciary, which constitutes an infringement of Art. 19 TEU.
Furthermore, the Commission reminded the Court of Justice of its own interim measures order of 17 December 2018 in the Supreme Court case (see also the interim measures order of November) in which it refuted that the Commission based itself on mere hypotheses and it held that the contested provisions could lead to a violation of Article 19(1) TEU (paras. 55-56 of that order). Nevertheless, the Polish representative argued that the contested provisions of the Polish law have been amended in compliance with EU law, as a consequence of which the Commission should withdraw its application of Article 258 TFEU. Moreover, the Polish representative emphasised that the Minister of Justice has no wide scope of discretion, as the Minister considers the workload of the other ordinary courts and the need for human resources in other courts when granting or refusing an extension of the activity of an ordinary court judge.
At the same time, the Polish representative acknowledged, in response to a question raised by the Judge Rapporteur, that the Minister of Justice does not have to motivate his decision and that there is no judicial review against this decision. During the hearing, the President of the Court noted that the lack of motivation makes the situation all the more suspicious. The Judge Rapporteur also appeared puzzled on how the retirement of a certain judge will remedy the workload in other courts. Instead she suggested the transfer from personnel as a possible solution. The Polish representative explicitly rejected this “opinion” of the Judge Rapporteur by stating that the Polish law does not foresee in such a possibility.
More fundamentally, the Polish representative submitted that the Commission’s infringement action is an unjustified interference in the national judicial system of a Member State, which is a purely internal affair. The lowering of the retirement age cannot be considered to be a removal of judges from their office since it would simply be an exception to the constitutional rule regarding the general retirement age, justified by the need of effective allocation of judges among the various ordinary courts in Poland.
Following this argument the President requested the Commission to divulge on whether the competences conferred on the EU by virtue of Article 19(1) TEU can be limited considering the autonomy of the Member States to organise its judicial system. The Commission conceded that it had to respect the attribution of competences and the autonomy of the Member States regarding the functioning and organisation of its judiciary but equally noted that Member States have to guarantee some minimum standards that have to be adhered to, as the Court of Justice has specified in its previous case law, such as the Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses and LM judgments. The Polish representative, nevertheless, objected the use of double standards regarding the principle of judicial independence by the Court of Justice, since the renewal of a judge’s mandate at the Court of Justice for 6 years entails, similar to the extension of a Polish ordinary court judge, a decision of the governments.
Of course, the decision of Member States’ governments with regard to the (re)appointment of the Court of Justice judges can hardly be compared to the discretionary power of the Minister of Justice to grant or refuse an extension of the active service of an ordinary court judge. Admittedly, the appointment procedure for judges at the Court of Justice is not completely transparent (see for instance M. A. Simonelli, “Quod Licet Iovi non Licet Bovi. The Appointment Process to the Court of Justice and the Reform of Judiciary in Poland”, on the European Law Blog). Yet, in accordance with Article 253 TFEU and Article 255 TFEU, criteria, such as the independence beyond doubt and the right qualifications, have to be considered and a(n) (re)appointment is decided by common accord of the governments of the Member States. In addition, a decision will be taken after the consultation of an expert panel consisting of former members of the Court of Justice and the General Court, members of national supreme courts and lawyers of recognised competence.
Advocate General Tanchev’s approach on upholding the rule of law
It is now up to the Advocate General to deliver his opinion in the Ordinary Courts case, expected on the 20th of June 2019, before the Court of Justice will render a decision. However, his opinion in the Supreme Court case was released on the 11th of April 2019 and already sheds light on the outcome of his opinion in the Ordinary Courts case. The Supreme Court case deals with the Polish measures lowering the retirement age of the Supreme court judges from 70 to 65 years of age and granting the President of Poland the power to extend the active service of Supreme court judges. As a result it is very much comparable to the Ordinary Courts case.
As compellingly highlighted by Advocate General, the Supreme Court case will be the first infringement action in which the Court of Justice has to rule on the compatibility of measures adopted by Member States regarding the organisation of the national judicial system with the standards foreseen in Art. 19(1) TEU (Opinion, para. 47). According to the Advocate General, the Court’s decisions in these currently pending cases will strengthen the respect for the rule of law by Member States and will further offer guidance on the standards upon which the rule of law is based. The fact that an Article 7(1) TEU procedure has been invoked against Poland does not change the admissibility of the case. Notably, the Advocate General applied a clear delimitation between both procedures, Article 258 TFEU being a legal procedure and Article 7 TEU a political procedure, as they have a different scheme and purpose (Opinion, para. 50).
Confirming the Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses case: the verification of rule of law compatibility falls within the scope of Article 19(1) TEU
The Advocate General examines the scope of application of Article 19(1) TEU and Article 47 EU Charter separately, as Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe also proposed in his opinion in the Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses case. Yet, the Court of Justice reformulated the question in the Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses case by leaving out a reference to Article 47 EU Charter. The Court of Justice merely referred to Article 47 EU Charter in order to explain that the principle of effective judicial protection requires that everyone has a right to an effective remedy before a tribunal which is independent and impartial.
By relying merely on Article 19(1) TEU, the Court of Justice refrained from opening a Pandora’s box on the discussion of the scope of application of the Charter. Although some commentators have argued to revisit the scope of application of the Charter, as set out in its Article 51, an extensive reading of this provision could be regarded as an unjustified intervention in the Member States’ national affairs endangering the sovereignty of national constitutional courts to observe the rule of law and fundamental rights enshrined in the national constitutions (T. von Danwitz, “The Rule of Law in Recent ECJ Jurisprudence” in W. Schroeder (ed.), Strengthening the Rule of Law in Europe, from a common concept to mechanisms of implementation, Hart Publishing, Portland, 2016, (155)165).
Indeed, this ‘national sovereignty’ argument has several times been repeated by the Polish representative during the hearing of the Ordinary Courts case. During the hearing however, the Commission highlighted that Article 47 EU Charter is merely called upon to help interpret the principle of effective judicial protection of Article 19(1) TEU. Moreover, the infringement action focuses on a breach of Article 19(1) TEU as a consequence of the Polish measures lowering the retirement age of the ordinary courts judges and the discretionary power of the Minister of Justice to decide on a possible extension of judicial mandates. The emphasis then is on the material scope of application of Article 19(1) TEU. In this regard, Advocate General Tanchev argues that Member States have the obligation to guarantee the full application of EU law and the judicial protection of individuals under Art. 19(1) TEU, which entails that measures impairing the independence of national courts hinder the EU Courts from carrying out their mandate under Article 19(1) TEU (Opinion in Commission v. Poland (Supreme Court case), para. 59). The Court of Justice thus has the competence to verify whether measures adopted by a Member State are in line with their obligations resulting from Art. 19(1) TEU.
As the Polish Supreme Court – mutatis mutandis the Polish ordinary courts – may rule on questions concerning the application or interpretation of EU law, and the infringement action concerns an alleged breach of the rule of law, concretised by Article 19 TEU, the infringement action brought by the Commission before the Court of Justice in the Supreme Court case – mutatis mutandis the Ordinary Courts case – should be deemed admissible according to Advocate General Tanchev (Opinion in Commission v. Poland (Supreme Court case), para. 63).
Poland infringes the rule of law as concretised by the principle of effective judicial protection
Following this finding of admissibility, Advocate General Tanchev opines that Poland infringes Article 19(1) TEU on two accounts. Firstly by violating the principle of irremovability of judges and by violating the principle of judicial independence by granting the President of Poland the discretionary power to extend the active service upon the retirement age of a judge on the other hand.
Remarkably the Commission did not raise any arguments with regard to the irremovability during the hearing of the Ordinary Courts case, as it focussed on the discretionary power of the Minister. While it considered the lowering of the retirement age of the ordinary courts judges a relevant aspect of the overall discussion, it did not consider it as a breach of Article 19(1) TEU as such. In contrast the Advocate General stressed the principle of irremovability as one of the guarantees essential to judicial independence.
It is, furthermore, noteworthy how the Advocate General in the Supreme Court case is guiding the Court of Justice in defining the principle of irremovability by referring to soft law created by other international bodies, such as the Council of Europe, the International Bar Association, and the United Nations. In addition, the Advocate General highlights the value of such non-binding norms, as they imply normative consensus of rules and principles shared by the Member States or other jurisdictions which provide a useful reference for the Court of Justice (Opinion in Commission v. Poland (Supreme Court case), footnotes 51-52).
Namely, this principle of irremovability entails that a judge should have “a guaranteed tenure until a mandatory retirement age or the expiry of their term of office, and can be subject to suspension or removal from office in individual cases only for the reasons of incapacity or behaviour rendering them unfit for office. Early retirement should be possible only at the request of the judge concerned or on medical grounds, and any changes to the obligatory retirement age must not have retroactive effect” (Opinion in Commission v. Poland (Supreme Court case), para. 72). Moreover, in Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses the Court of Justice assessed the circumstances of the case, such as the impact on the composition of the court, the nature of the legislation adopted in respect of the members of the court concerned, and the duration of the application of the legislation, to verify whether the lowering of the remuneration level was violating the principle of judicial independence. Advocate General Tanchev uses these factors to verify whether the lowering of the retirement age is breaching the principle of irremovability of judges (Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses, paras. 46-50; Opinion in Commission v. Poland (Supreme Court case), para. 76).
Furthermore, the Advocate General adds that a sudden and unforeseen removal of a large number of judges creates difficulties in terms of public confidence. This argument could also be used to refute the closing remark of the Polish representatives during the hearing of the Ordinary Courts case, namely that the infringement procedure brought by the Commission is counterproductive and confuses the Polish judicial system. By lowering the retirement age and obliging a large number of judges to retire before the end of the initial termination of their active service, the Polish government precisely creates public confusion and uncertainty.
In respect to the discretionary power of the Polish President to extend the term of the office upon the retirement age of the Supreme court judge, Advocate General Tanchev holds that also this Polish measure is contrary to the principle of judicial independence enshrined in Article 19(1) TEU. In particular, the external aspect of judicial independence is violated, since the measure exposes the Supreme court judges to external intervention and pressure from the Polish President considering the link between the lowering of the retirement age and the requirement to request an extension of the retirement age to the President (Opinion in Commission v. Poland (Supreme Court case), para. 89). Applying these elements mutatis mutandis to the measure granting the Minister of Justice the discretionary power to grant or refuse an extension of the retirement age of the ordinary court judges, it seems obvious that the Advocate General would come to the same conclusion in his opinion on the Ordinary Courts case. The lack of clear criteria for granting an extension and the absence of judicial review against a refusal of the extension without a persuasive explanation of the Polish representative would a fortiori lead to the existence of external intervention and pressure from the Minister of Justice, contrary to Article 19(1) TEU.
Will the assist of the Court of Justice lead to the winning goal in the rule of law crisis?
Consequently, the opinion of Advocate General Tanchev in the Ordinary Courts case will probably not come as a surprise and will most likely be comparable, if not similar, to his opinion in the Supreme Court case. Considering the outcome of the Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses case, it can be expected that the Court of Justice will act upon its judgment and ultimately take a firm stance in the rule of law crisis. As the political tools to enforce the rule of law are unable to cope with the rule of law deficiencies in certain Member States, the ‘legal route’ should be further deployed by the Court of Justice in light of the pending infringement and preliminary ruling procedures. Although much more has to be done by Poland in order to restore the independence of the judiciary in compliance with Article 19(1) TEU, the Court of Justice’s intervention by means of the interim measures in the Supreme Court case led to the reinstatement of the Supreme Court judges who were forced into early retirement.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 9, chapter 10
Photo credit: France24