Poland’s rule of law crisis threatens the integrity of its universities
When Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party decided to take a hammer to the country’s democratic foundations in 2015, Katarzyna Wesolowska, a successful businesswoman in her 40s, hatched a plan to go to law school. She wanted to arm herself with tools to fight back. Poland’s Constitutional Court had fallen under government control and morally corrupt judges were being appointed throughout the judiciary, while the state media lost its integrity and many civil society organizations felt unsettled, concerned by how undemocratic changes and state pressure would affect institutional funding and support.
Now in her third year at Kozminski University, Wesolowska has a front row seat to observe what she describes as moral corruption seeping into Polish law facilities. Seasoned academics duel with opportunist colleagues willing to parrot the right-wing government’s line in order to collect low-hanging promotions. “There are two teams of professors,” she told me when we met in central Warsaw. “One that does things in the right way, and another more dangerous team. You learn how to accept that you can’t be outspoken because there is a possibility it could affect your exam results.”
This is a silent element of Poland’s descent into a rule-of-law crisis: the impact on law students and early-career professionals who, in trying to negotiate bewildering changes and political influencing, have been subject to academic whiplash and relentless government disinformation. The effect has been chilling. Many young Poles in the law field appear to have gone to ground.
Law and Justice came to power in October 2015 with the promise of improving the efficiency of the courts and ridding the country of the remnants of communism. It began to make its presence felt by seeking to influence the composition of the Constitutional Court, a powerful institution with the authority to assess the constitutionality of Polish laws. When five of the Court’s 15 judges were due to retire around the 2015 elections, Law and Justice tried to oust three candidates who had been legally chosen by the outgoing pro-EU Civic Platform party and push through five of their own judicial appointments instead.
The new government had not only set out to dismiss elected judges but bypassed the Constitutional Court entirely while it was discussing the legality of the Civic Platform judicial candidates. In the end, the Court admitted only two Law and Justice judges, but the chain of events — and the government’s later decision to change the quorum in the Constitutional Court — brought hundreds of people out onto the streets of Warsaw in protest. The Law and Justice party and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski took no notice.
With the Constitutional Court quickly falling under the influence of the government, Law and Justice turned to the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, a body responsible for protecting the independence of judges and courts. In 2017, the government pushed through reforms that gave them control over the process of electing new judges, a key function of the Council of the Judiciary. Around the same time, steps were taken to reduce the retirement age of Supreme Court judges, a move that the Court of Justice of the European Union later said violated EU law. A Disciplinary Chamber was established in 2017, which critics argued was a scheme to intimidate judges who refused to walk the party line. Confronted by this illiberal sea change, the European Union has tried to fight back by withholding funds from the bloc’s sixth largest economy. The results have been mixed. The Disciplinary Chamber was disbanded in July 2022 and replaced with the Chamber of Professional Responsibility. Nonetheless, key legal institutions in Poland are still operating at the whim of the government despite the outcry from Brussels.
This turmoil has trickled down into the halls of Poland’s public and private universities. A clear example is the approach to teaching. Some professors have continued to teach the law within its political, social and economic context. Others have become hesitant. A few have decided to teach their classes in a vacuum and avoid the rule-of-law crisis and its implications altogether.
It’s not only teaching in the classroom that has become an issue. According to Dr. Aleksandra Kustra-Rogatka, an associate professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, in central Poland, the role of academia itself is also up for debate. In the pages of academic journals, a few Polish intellectuals have declared that their role is simply to present the facts and not opinions. Their peers have shot back, arguing that during a constitutional crisis the academic community is duty bound to actively participate in discussions and not hide behind a veil of neutrality. “We cannot say to students anymore that the law is objective and nothing changes, that it’s politically neutral. We must change our way of teaching and what we teach,” Kustra-Rogatka told me.
There have also been moments when political influence on universities has been spectacularly blatant. In 2021, Kozminski University broke off its relationship with Judge Igor Tuleya, 12 months after the 52-year-old was stripped of his immunity and suspended by the Disciplinary Chamber for ruling against the Law and Justice party. The call to suspend Tuleya came from the vice president of a district court in Warsaw, Przemyslaw Radzik, a government ally who is reported to have said that the judge could “demoralize” students.
To get a clearer sense of these events I spoke to Dr. Agnieszka Grzelak, a professor of European law at Kozminski University. We met at Green Café Nero, not far from Poland’s Palace of Culture and Science, on a rainy Warsaw afternoon. Direct in her assessment of the rule-of-law situation in Poland, Grzelak told me that when news emerged of Judge Tuleya’s dismissal, it sent shock waves through Kozminski’s law facility. Almost immediately 18 colleagues came together to write an open letter to the rector, Grzegorz Mazurek, calling for the university to change tack. The “autonomy of the university” was at stake, they wrote. Hours after receiving the correspondence, Judge Tuleya’s agreement with Kozminski was restored, but in many regards the reputational damage was done. “There is a collapse of the rule of law in every aspect. Starting from legislation to the way the law is adopted, to the situation in the parliament, to the situation in the courts, everything you touch there is some problem,” Grzelak said.
Watching these events unfold are Poland’s law students. If the expectation was for the next generation of lawyers to seriously refute the ruling party’s manipulation of democracy, those hopes have been put to bed by their professors. In several discussions I had while researching this story the conclusion by some faculty was that law students have generally shrugged off the rule-of-law crisis. One reason was their communication patterns, with today’s youth living more insular lives governed by the algorithms of TikTok and Instagram. Another was a lack of enthusiasm for proper legal sourcing, with students opting to reference short online texts rather than harvest information from the context-rich pages of legal journals.
Adam Bodnar, the dean of the law facility at the private SWPS University, told me that students “treat freedom like air” and often struggle to connect the rule-of-law crisis to the future of the country. Of course, there are students, like Katarzyna Wesolowska, who are driven to be a part of the solution.
I also spoke with Adam Buwelski, an impressive 21-year-old at the University of Warsaw, who, on top of a rigorous schedule of classes, finds time to sit on the law students’ association. He reluctantly agreed with the assertion that his generation could do more to engage with Poland’s constitutional crisis. “There is an anger in us that is often hidden because we are living with this day in, day out,” he said. “There are scandals all the time and as a group we are used to it. We don’t have heated discussions about everything going on. That’s a very different position to our parents and professors who are discussing everything all the time. We’re calm but, yes, I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
Certain issues do arouse the attention of supposedly apathetic students. When the Constitutional Court outlawed abortion in cases of fetal abnormalities in October 2020, students took part in the nationwide protests. The issue of LGTBQ+ rights has also sparked outrage as the Law and Justice party and its close ally, the Polish Catholic Church, work relentlessly to strip away the rights of this community. The University of Warsaw has also been embroiled in scandal which ignited students’ frustrations. In January 2023, a lecture by the former deputy commissioner for human rights, Dr. Hanna Machinska, was canceled by the rector weeks after the academic was dismissed from her job. After student protests and a public outcry, the lecture eventually took place, but it was a worrying repeat of a pattern established by the Judge Tuleya case, signaling that critics of the government might not be welcome at universities either.
But the disengagement of students is also grounded in very practical challenges. For individuals wishing to enter the judiciary, the moral corruption of the Council of the Judiciary has the ability to undermine their hard work. In order to be nominated for a role in the courts, trainee judges must be proposed by the Council to the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, a close ally of the Law and Justice party. The fear among students is that when the Law and Justice party is finally voted out, they will be seen as tainted judges despite their education and personal beliefs. “[When] starting a career as a judge or a prosecutor, legal jobs connected to the public system of education run by the Ministry of Justice, the students doubt if they should start it,” Grzelak, the professor in EU law, told me. “They ask: What if I graduate from training, will I become a judge or will I become a fake judge?”
On everyones’ minds in Poland at the moment are the 2023 parliamentary elections. Should Law and Justice continue in office for another four years, the party will continue to damage to democratic values and institutions in Poland. Up against opposition parties who have so far failed to ignite any real fervor across the country, Law and Justice candidates are leading in the polls. For Buwelski and his peers at the University of Warsaw, many are getting ready to vote for The Left, a small political alliance of leftist parties. In some law students’ eyes, the salient issues affecting Poland’s younger generation, such as rising house prices and inflation, are not addressed to suit the needs of their generation. Law and Justice, Buwelski says, caters to their base, and the opposition to anyone who doesn’t like the ruling party. No one takes much time to think about the youth and their future.
But even if the election spells the end for Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his band of spoilers, Poland won’t be out of the woods. The damage being done to the rule of law has been so great that it will take more than one term in office to rectify it. For Katarzyna Wesolowska, the student in Kozminski University who will graduate in 2025, that means the road to fixing her country won’t be easy.
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