A very Polish scandal7 min read

Since the right-wing party Law and Justice (PiS) won the Polish parliamentary election in 2016, they have made reforming the country’s judiciary a main priority of their political agenda. Officially, they want to root out the country’s communist legacy of nepotism and cronyism. As stated by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński, Polish courts are not only “the stronghold of post-communists in Poland,” but the “Supreme Court is … protecting the people who had served the old regime,” The unofficial reason however, according to many critics, is that PiS wish to bolster their power at the cost of democratic values and institutions.

In the summer of 2017, the government passed three controversial pieces of legislation. The first two declared that members of The National Council of the Judiciary, an independent body responsible for the nomination of judges, should be appointed by the Parliament. This would give the ruling party indirect control over the appointment of the country’s judges.  

After waves of protests swept through Polish cities, the two proposals were quickly vetoed by President Andrzej Duda. This, however, did not stop the government from signing a third and equally controversial law forcing Supreme Court judges into early retirement.

As opposition forces started to protest even harder than before, the European Commission took up disciplinary measures by triggering Article 7, which suspends certain rights for European Union member-states that do not comply with the values of the EU. Due to the pressure of public protests and the EU’s threats of marginalizing Poland within its structures, the Polish government at the end of 2018 finally decided to back down from this third piece of legislation.

Trying to get what you want

Just when some thought PiS had been defeated, an article published on popular Polish web portal Onet in August 2019 year unraveled a scandal typical of the anti-democratic style that has become a signature of contemporary Polish politics. 

In this article, journalist Magdalena Gałczyńska revealed that a senior PiS party politician had either enabled or directly participated in a public smear campaign against judges critical of the government’s attempts to reform the judiciary.

Then-Deputy Justice Minister Łukasz Piebiak, known as the main architect behind PiS judicial reforms had worked with a professional internet troll going by the pseudonym “Emilia” (her real name is Emilia Szmydt) to spread materials aimed at discrediting a number of Polish judges.

Allegedly, Piebiak had started passing Szmydt data about the judges in June 2018 (before the controversial judicial reforms had been put to rest) with the intent to discredit and silence them. 

“Get the fuck out of Poland, you louse”  

Szmydt’s primary target was district court judge Krystian Markiewicz, who as the head of Iustitia, the Polish Judges Association, had not only criticized PiS’s attempts to change the Polish justice system, but openly taken the side of the European Commission when it claimed that the rule of law was being threatened in Poland. Information about Markiewicz’s private life, including his contacts with women and his professional ambitions, was sent by Szmydt to pro-government media, as well as to Markiewicz’s workplace and home. Szmydt also contributed materials to a television program in which district court judge and Iustitia affiliate Piotr Gąciarek was accused of abusing his connections in the prosecutor’s office to convict an ex-lover.

Szmydt later told Onet that she might have targeted as many as 20 judges by trolling them on social media, using vulgarisms like “get the fuck out of Poland, you louse”.

Fragments of Szmydt’s conversations with Deputy Minister Piebiak reveal that he heartily supported her activities and ideas. In 2018, for example:

Szmydt: “I will talk to journalists and send letters. Anonymously by email. But also by post. The only problem is I do not have addresses and emails. I will do everything I can, as always. I will not vouch for the result, but I will try. I hope they do not lock me up”.

Piebiak: “We do not lock people up for doing good”.

After the accusations against district court judge Gąciarek had been broadcast on television, Piebiak praised Emilia for working “beautifully and with a flourish,” adding that she “goes off like a bomb”.

Consequences

Two days after the news broke about Szmydt, she publicly apologized to those who she had been trolling. Furthermore, she claimed that she had been intimidated and received some anonymous threats.

Piebiak initially denied having cooperated with Szmydt, claiming that he knew her only from Twitter and had never contacted her regarding Judge Markiewicz. Soon after that, however, Piebiak handed in his resignation, and Jakub Iwaniec, a judge and employee at the Ministry of Justice and a close associate of Piebiak, was also dismissed by the Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro.

Ziobro claims he knew nothing about the situation and has managed to avoid any political consequences. However, in one Piebiak’s leaked messages to Szmydt, he mentions sending something to his boss “to make him happy”, suggesting Ziobro may have been aware of, or possibly even sanctioned Piebiak’s relationship with Szmydt. 

Further investigation into the case by Gazeta.pl, moreover, suggests that a group of pro-government judges, including Emilia Szmydt’s husband Tomasz, had in some way supported the smear campaign as well. What seemed to be a one- (or potentially two-man show if you count Iwaniec), suddenly grew into something bigger. 

On August 21st, screenshots of a WhatsApp group called Kasta (The Caste) were published, in which vulgar jokes about independent judges were being made. In addition to Tomasz Szmydt, the group consisted of, among others, Konrad Wytrykowski, a close friend to Piebiak and a judge of the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court; as well as members of the National Council of the Judiciary Dariusz Drajewicz, Maciej Nawacki, and Jarosław Dudzicz. The screenshot shows that the judges also had plans to send hateful postcards to the President of the Supreme court, Małgorzata Gersdorf, who has been one of the most ardent defenders of the independence of the Polish judiciary. 

Responding to these accusations, some of the Kaste judges threatened to file a libel suit against the journalists of Onet and Gazeta.pl. However, the fact that disciplinary proceedings are being conducted against Tomasz Szmydt and fellow judge Rafał Stasikowski seems to suggest that something is going on behind the closed doors of the Ministry of Justice.

The never-ending conflict

Conventional wisdom has it that a country’s judicial systems should remain independent from its politics. In Poland, however, a set of failed judicial reforms and a high-level smear campaign show that the government does not agree with the old wisdom.

It is a worrying – but not unsurprising – sign that the people responsible for attacking an independent pillar of democracy, as well as its elected members, seem to get away without any serious repercussion. Piebiak, though no longer deputy Minister of Justice, is still working as a district court judge, and his boss, the Minister of Justice, has avoided being in any way implicated in his activities.

Despite Kaczyński’s promises to bring Poland forward from its communist past, the Piebiak scandal, if anything is a testimony to the country’s struggles to deal with a legacy of silencing opposition for political gain. A pessimist might say that in Poland, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Certainly, it isn’t easy being a young democracy. With four more years of PiS in power, the situation is unlikely to change for the better; on the contrary, we can probably expect to see more attempts against democratic institutions like the Polish judiciary. 

Monika Szafrańska holds two BA’s, one in European Studies and one in Journalism and Social Communication, both at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree and working as an editorial assistant at New Eastern Europe magazine. Her interests mostly cover Polish-EU relations and images of the EU in Polish media.