In Poland, a Stubborn Defender of Judicial Independence

WARSAW — Judge Igor Tuleya has been labeled an enemy of the state by the Polish government, threatened with violence, forced to evacuate his courtroom for fear of anthrax attacks and demonized in the right-wing media as a communist stooge. After someone smeared excrement on the door of his Warsaw apartment, his landlord deemed him too much trouble and evicted him.

In Poland’s yearslong struggle over the rule of law, its judges have often found themselves at the ramparts — frequently vilified but also leading the efforts to stop the nationalist government’s campaign to tighten control over the judiciary. In the last two years, at least 20 judges have reported political harassment, while hundreds of judges and lawyers currently face threats of disciplinary proceedings widely regarded as politically motivated.

At the center of the dispute is Judge Tuleya, whose rulings — branded “political” by Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party — have been cited by the authorities as one of the reasons they need to bring the country’s judiciary to heel. The overhaul has already triggered a process in Brussels that could see the country become the first European Union country to lose its voting rights.

Judge Tuleya, 49, like many of his colleagues, said he has no choice but to resist, no matter the professional or personal cost.

“Next year, some of us might be removed from office and those who will remain will be harassed into obedience,” he said during an interview at the District Court in Warsaw, where he is a judge trying criminal cases. “We will go back to the times of communism, when the judiciary was under the heel of politicians. We need to stand our ground while we still can.”

These days Judge Tuleya, along with some of his peers from the Polish judges’ association, Iustitia, spends more and more time outside the courtroom, traveling the country to help educate the public about the consequences of the government’s threats to judicial independence.

In court, Judge Tuleya, who is single and known for his serious demeanor, always wears a suit underneath his scarlet robes. Outside the courtroom, though, he prefers a military green parka and funky T-shirts with bold statements like “Judge Not Dead,” “Free Courts, Free People” and the increasingly popular slogan of the protest movement: “Konstytucja,” or Constitution.

He believes that the actions of Law and Justice have given birth to a “civic judge,” a new type of a justice who is “not isolated from the world but engages with the public outside the courtroom.”

“Perhaps this is not a model known in older democracies in Europe, but I don’t think it’s at odds with their standards,” he said. “It may be new and it’s very needed here.”

Those efforts at public outreach seem to be the target of a draft law proposed by Law and Justice in December that seeks to punish judges who criticize the government’s campaign to overhaul the judiciary and who engage in unspecified “political activities.”

“None of the changes they have made in the last four years have made the courts more efficient, transparent or friendlier toward citizens,” Judge Tuleya said. “All they have meant to do is fill key positions with loyalists.”

On Saturday, Polish judges led by Judge Tuleya, among others, will be joined by their peers from about 20 European countries in the March of a Thousand Scarlet Robes in Warsaw to protest the new bill.

The authorities see those demonstrations as a misguided and self-serving expression of solidarity among the judges. President Andrzej Duda said recently that the judges resist the changes only because they do not want “their privileges and power over the people taken away.”

Judge Tuleya first gained prominence in 2013, when he issued his ruling in the trial of Dr. Miroslaw Garlicki, a distinguished heart surgeon whom the Law and Justice-led government accused of taking bribes, sexual harassment and killing a patient. Prosecutors painted him as the epitome of a corrupt, immoral post-communist elite that needed to be expunged from Polish society.

By the time Judge Tuleya reached his verdict, Law and Justice had been voted out of power. But his ruling offered a scathing indictment of the government’s actions while in power.

While he did find Dr. Garlicki guilty of accepting cash and gifts from his patients, he cleared the doctor of all other charges. He said the methods used by law enforcement and prosecutors — at the behest of political leaders — were reminiscent of the “deepest Stalinist times.” Those methods included late-night interrogations, threats and unfounded detentions of witnesses.

Ever since that ruling, pro-government media outlets have waged a sustained campaign to discredit Judge Tuleya. When Law and Justice regained power in 2015, government officials pointed to the ruling as evidence of corruption in the judiciary.

Judge Tuleya says he now faces threats and verbal attacks on the street on a weekly basis. He watches as people on Twitter discuss murdering him. On two occasions, anthrax scares forced the evacuation of thousands of people in the District Court building where he works.

Despite the efforts of Judge Tuleya and others, Law and Justice has been largely successful in its efforts to dominate the judicial system. Experts say officials now have full control of the Constitutional Tribunal, the Office of the Attorney General and the National Council of the Judiciary.

However, a push to purge the Supreme Court failed after the lead justice, Malgorzata Gersdorf, refused to resign and the European Commission threatened penalties if a newly imposed mandatory retirement age was put into effect.

It was not the first time that opponents of the government had turned to the European Union as a last resort.

And Judge Tuleya is one of several jurists who have reached out to the European Court of Justice to rule on whether the judicial overhaul violates European rules. A motion he filed is still pending.

Even as he challenges the government, Judge Tuleya is facing six separate disciplinary inquiries — including one for turning to the European court for help.

It is hardly the position Judge Tuleya expected to find himself when he decided to study law at the University of Warsaw. It was 1989, the Iron Curtain had just come crashing down and Poland was free for the first time in decades.

He considered medical school, but ended up choosing a career in the law, he said. Inspired by the character of Mitch McDeere, the protagonist of the John Grisham novel “The Firm,” he first planned on working as a sleek lawyer, but ended up on the bench instead.

The judge, who was born in the industrial city of Lodz in central Poland and raised in Warsaw, began his career in 1996 and quickly made a name for himself during trials of people who had committed grievous crimes during the Stalinist era.

His first scrape with many of the same people now running the government came in 2003, when he refused a request from politicians to waive a law protecting journalistic sources in a corruption affair that brought down the government at the time.

Despite the government’s stream of claims that Judge Tuleya is biased and a political agent, he says no one from the ruling party has ever asked to remove him from cases concerning them, implying that they expect a fair hearing in his court, despite their rhetoric.

“They could have done it but never did,” he said. “Those claims that judges are politicians are sheer manipulation.”

The judge warned that there is no room for constructive policy criticism at this point, because the government treats all such expressions of concern as political attacks.

“But it is not just our right as judges to speak up when the rule of law is being threatened, it is also our duty,” he said. “I’ve had to face harsh consequences because of my rulings. I have survived them all and I now feel free to speak my mind.”

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