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An Uncertain First Step in the Field of Judicial Self-government: ECJ 19 November 2019, Joined Cases C-585/18, C-624/18 and C-625/18, A.K., CP and DO

  • Mathieu Leloup

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PhD Assistant at the University of Antwerp, Belgium; email: Mathieu.Leloup@uantwerpen.be. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful remarks, as well as Ane Aranguiz and Cedric Jenart for reading an earlier version of this text. All errors remain my own.

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1 For example Report of 2 May 2018 of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers on Judicial Councils, A/HRC/38/38.

2 For example Consultative Council of European Judges (CCJE), Opinion No. 19 (2016) on the Role of Court Presidents; CCJE, Opinion No. 10 (2007) on the Council for the Judiciary at the service of society.

3 For example Sillen, J., ‘The concept of “internal judicial independence” in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights’, 15 EuConst (2019) p. 104; Guest Editor Kosař, D., ‘Judicial Self-Government in Europe’, 19 German Law Journal (2018).

4 ECtHR 25 September 2018, No. 76639/11, Denisov v Ukraine (on the independence of the Ukrainian High Council of Justice during proceedings concerning the applicant’s removal from the position of court president); ECtHR 21 June 2016, Nos. 55391/13 57728/13 and 74041/13, Ramos Nunes De Carvalho E Sá v Portugal (on procedural guarantees before the Portuguese High Council of the Judiciary during disciplinary proceedings and the relationship between this body and the Supreme Court).

5 Respectively case numbers C-585/18, 624/18 and 625/18. ECJ 19 November 2019, joined Cases C-585/18, C-624/18 and C-625/18, A.K., CP and DO.

6 On the question whether national judges could refuse to execute a European Arrest Warrant due to doubts that persisted around the independence of Polish judges after the judicial reform: ECJ 25 July 2018, Case C-216/18, Minister for Justice and Equality (Deficiencies in the system of justice). On the infringement proceedings initiated due to the lowering of the retirement age for judges of the Polish Supreme Court: ECJ 24 June 2019, Case C-619/18, Commission v Poland (Independence of the Supreme Court). On the infringement proceedings initiated due to the lowering of the retirement age for judges of the Polish ordinary courts: ECJ 5 November 2019, Case C-192/18, Commission v Poland (Independence of the ordinary courts).

7 There were other questions that were declared inadmissible on procedural grounds and which will not be addressed in this case note.

8 Venice Commission, Opinion 904/2017 of 11 December 2017, on the draft act amending the act on the national council of the judiciary, on the draft act amending the act on the supreme court, proposed by the president of Poland, and on the act on the organisation of ordinary courts, CDL-AD(2017)031.

9 Report of 2 April 2018 of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers on his mission to Poland, A/HRC/38/38/Add.1.

10 PACE, Resolution 2188 of 11 October 2017, New threats to the rule of law in Council of Europe member States: selected examples, ⟨assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=24214&lang=en⟩, visited 2 December 2019.

11 Most notably Sadurski, W., Poland’s Constitutional Breakdown (Oxford University Press 2019).

12 This lowering of the retirement age, combined with the competence of the President to rule on the extension of the mandate, was found to infringe the principle of judicial independence and the irremovability of judges as enshrined in the second subparagraph of Art. 19(1) TEU. See Commission v Poland (Independence of the Supreme Court), supra n. 6.

13 Although this case note will not go into detail about this chamber, it should be noted that the European Court of Human Rights has previously found a violation of the right to a fair trial on account of such special appeal procedures that could set aside final judgments: see, for example ECtHR 27 July 2003, No. 52854/99, Ryabykh v Russia.

14 Venice Commission, supra n. 8, para. 53.

15 Art. 186(1) Polish Constitution.

16 Śledzińska-Simon, A., ‘The Rise and Fall of Judicial Self-Government in Poland: On Judicial Reform Reversing Democratic Transition’, 19 German Law Journal (2018) p. 1839 at p. 1848.

17 Art. 187(1) Polish Constitution.

18 Venice Commission, supra n. 8, paras. 19-27.

19 Report of 2 April 2018 of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers on his mission to Poland, A/HRC/38/38/Add.1., para. 13.

20 Polish Constitutional Court 25 March 2019, K 12/18. English press release available at: ⟨trybunal.gov.pl/en/news/press-releases/after-the-hearing/art/10522-wybor-czlonkow-krs-przez-sejm-sposrod-sedziow-odwolanie-od-uchwaly-krs-dotyczacej-powola/⟩, visited 17 February 2020. One could see this judgment as evidence that the Polish Constitutional Court is acting more like a government enabler than as a legitimate check on the functioning of government. See Castillo-Ortiz, P., ‘The Illiberal Abuse of Constitutional Courts in Europe’, 15 EuConst (2019) p. 48.

21 Directive 2000/78 of 27 November 2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation, OJ 2000 L 303, p. 16.

22 For the full questions, see A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 51 and 52.

23 Opinion of AG Tanchev of 27 June 2019 in joined cases C-585/18, C-624/18 and C-625/18, A.K., CP and DO, paras. 82-89.

24 Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 130.

25 Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 116. This is settled case law: Commission v Poland (Independence of the ordinary courts), supra n. 6, para. 116; Commission v Poland (Independence of the Supreme Court), supra n. 6, paras. 71-73; Minister for Justice and Equality (Deficiencies in the system of justice), supra n. 6, para. 66.

26 Commission v Poland (Independence of the Supreme Court), supra n. 6, para. 77; Minister for Justice and Equality (Deficiencies in the system of justice), supra n. 6, para. 67.

27 Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 118.

28 Ibid., para. 129.

29 Denisov, supra n. 4, paras. 69-70; ECtHR 9 January 2013, No. 21722/11, Oleksandr Volkov v Ukraine, paras. 109-117.

30 CCJE, Opinion No. 10 (2007) on the Council for the Judiciary at the service of society, points 17-19; CCJE, Magna Carta of Judges (Fundamental Principles), CCJE(2010)3 Final, point 13; Council of Europe, European Charter on the Statute of Judges, DAJ/DOC(98)23, point 1.3.

31 Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 127. With reference to: CCJE, Opinion No 10 (2007) on the Council for the Judiciary at the service of society, point 35; United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on de independence of judges and lawyers, point 83; Council of Europe Plan of Action on Strengthening Judicial Independence and Impartiality, CM(2016)36 final, Explanatory Note, Action 1.1., p. 20.

32 On this see also Venice Commission, supra n. 8, paras. 28-31.

33 Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 135.

34 Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 137.

35 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 118.

36 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 120-123, and the case law cited there.

37 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 124-131. It is worth pointing out that this is the first judgment concerning the rule of law crisis in Poland in which the Court of Justice refers to the principle of separation of powers so explicitly.

38 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 132.

39 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 133.

40 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 134-138.

41 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 142-145.

42 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 146-151.

43 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 152-153.

44 Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, paras. 153-156.

45 ECJ 24 June 2019, Case C-573/17, Popławski.

46 Ibid., paras. 53-54.

47 Ibid., paras. 55-58.

48 ECJ 26 July 2019, Case C-556/17, Torubarov, para. 56.

49 ECJ 17 April 2018, Case C-414/16, Egenberger, para. 79.

50 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 165.

51 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 166.

52 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 169-170.

53 See, for example, J. Shotter and A. Majos, ‘EU court raises concerns over Polish judicial overhaul’, Financial Times, 19 November 2019, ⟨www.ft.com/content/e94dab9a-0ab9-11ea-b2d6-9bf4d1957a67⟩, visited 17 February 2020.

54 M. Krajewski and M. Ziółkowski, ‘The power of “Appearances”’, Verfassungsblog, 26 November 2019, ⟨verfassungsblog.de/the-power-of-appearances/⟩, visited 17 February 2020.

55 Denisov, supra n. 4, paras. 69-70: Ramos Nunes De Carvalho E Sá, supra n. 4, paras. 78-79; Oleksandr Volkov, supra n. 29, paras. 109-117.

56 Denisov, supra n. 4, para. 72; Ramos Nunes De Carvalho E Sá, supra n. 4, para. 80; Oleksandr Volkov, supra n. 29, para. 117.

57 It should be pointed out here that certain scholarship indicates that supremacy of judicial members can lead to its own problems: Kosař, D., Perils of Judicial Self-Government in Transitional Societies (Cambridge University Press 2016); Bobek, M. and Kosař, D., ‘Global Solutions, Local Damages: A Critical Study in Judicial Councils in Central and Eastern Europe’, 15 German Law Journal (2014) p. 1257.

58 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 116-118.

59 Denisov, supra n. 4, para. 18; Ramos Nunes De Carvalho E Sá, supra n. 4, para. 6; Oleksandr Volkov, supra n. 29, para. 3.

60 ECtHR 5 February 2009, No. 22330/05, Olujić v Croatia, paras. 31-43.

61 Denisov, supra n. 4, para. 67.

62 It should be noted, however, that a recent judgment of the Strasbourg Court has indicated that a breach of national legislation when appointing a national judge, and undue influence from the political branches during this process, can lead to the decision that a tribunal is not established by law. See ECtHR 12 March 2019, No. 26374/18, Guðmundur Andri Ástráðsson v Iceland. This case has been referred to the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg Court. A similar question is pending before the Luxembourg Court: C-487/19. Furthermore, it is to be noted that international soft law instruments do not appear to make any distinction on the basis of which function a judicial council fulfils. The CCJE mentions that there should be a close connection between the composition and competences of a judicial council, without, however, derogating from the rule, which is a majority of judicial members. See CCJE, Opinion No 10 (2007) on the Council for the Judiciary at the service of society, point 45.

63 ECtHR 18 October 2018, No. 80018/12, Thiam v France.

64 Denisov, supra n. 4; Oleksandr Volkov, supra n. 29.

65 ECtHR 18 October 2018, No. 80018/12, Thiam v France, para. 81.

66 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 153.

67 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 142.

68 Jackson, V., ‘Judicial Independence: Structure, Context, Attitude’, in Seibert-Fohr, A. (ed.), Judicial Independence in Transition (Springer 2012) p. 19 at p. 25.

69 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 137-138, with reference, by analogy, to Commission v Poland (Independence of the Supreme Court), supra n. 6, paras. 115-116.

70 See, more elaborately on this issue, Sudre, F., ‘Le mystère des «apparences» dans la jurisprudence de la cour européenne des droits de l’homme’, 20 Revue Trimestrielle des Droits de l’Homme (2009) p. 633.

71 The Court followed a similar approach in the L.M. judgment, see Minister for Justice and Equality (Deficiencies in the system of justice), supra n. 6. For criticism on this approach, see Krajewski, M., ‘Who is Afraid of the European Council? The Court of Justice’s Cautious Approach to the Independence of Domestic Judges’, 14 EuConst (2018) p. 792 at p. 797-798; Leloup, M., ‘Het Hof van Justitie als Hoeder van de Rechtsstaat’ [The Court of Justice as Guardian of the Rule of Law], 73 Tijdschrift voor Bestuurswetenschappen en Publiekrecht (2018) p. 571 at p. 578.

72 ECJ 7 February 2019, Case C-49/18, Escribano Vindel; ECJ 27 February 2018, Case C-64/16, Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses.

73 European Commission, ‘Rule of Law: European Commission refers Poland to the Court of Justice to protect judges from political control’, European Commission, 10 October 2019, ⟨ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_6033⟩, visited 17 February 2020. This procedure is lodged under case number C-791/19.

75 J. Shotter, ‘Poland’s top court attacks ruling party over legal reform’, Financial Times, 5 December 2019, ⟨www.ft.com/content/50660394-1763-11ea-9ee4-11f260415385⟩, visited 17 February 2020.

76 See on this Venice Commission, Opinion 977/2019 of 16 January 2020, Urgent Opinion on Amendments to the Law of the Common Courts, the Law on the Supreme Court and Some Other Laws, CDL-PI(2020)002.

77 Attested by the fact that the Advocate General responded to this question in only four paragraphs.

78 See, for an exception, Besselink, L., ‘Separation of powers versus EC Law? Supreme Court of the Netherlands 21 March 2003, Stichting Waterpakt’, 41 Common Market Law Review (2004) p. 1429.

79 See on this Opinion of AG Jääskinen of 14 March 2013 in Case C-509/11, ÖBB-Personenverkehr, n. 22, and sources cited there.

80 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 160.

81 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 162.

82 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 165.

83 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 166. Here it said ‘so that the case may be determined by a court which, were it not for that provision, would have jurisdiction in the relevant field, namely, in general, the court which had jurisdiction before the entry into force of the amending legislation’ (emphasis added and parts omitted).

84 Sadurski, W., Poland’s Constitutional Breakdown (Oxford University Press 2019) p. 5895. In fact, there is a case pending before the Strasbourg Court questioning the independence of the Polish Constitutional Court and the fact that it is a tribunal established by law: ECtHR (communicated) 2 September 2019, No. 4907/18, Xero Flor w Polsce Sp.z o.o. v Poland.

85 See in particular A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 164 and 165.

86 Interesting in this regard is the statement of AG Tanchev that ‘national courts are obliged to supply an effective remedy to enforce EU law when it is otherwise unavailable under national law’ (para. 156 in his Opinion). In his Opinion he does not stress, like the Court did in its judgment, that the court that had been competent prior to the transfer of competence to a new court by new legislation must hear the complaint. Rather, he emphasises the obligation resting on all national courts to provide an effective remedy.

87 See on this Dougan, M., ‘Primacy and the Remedy of Disapplication’, 56 Common Market Law Review (2019) p. 1459.

88 Ibid., at p. 1480.

89 ECJ 2 June 2005, Case C-15/04, Koppensteiner.

90 See Council Directive 89/665/EEC of 21 December 1989 on the coordination of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions relating to the application of review procedures to the award of public supply and public works contracts, OJ L 395, 30 December 1989, p. 33–35.

91 See for a similar case ECJ 22 May 2003, Case C-462/99, Connect Austria.

92 Another example of such a binary choice can be found in cases where national legislation precludes a specific remedy that is expressly provided by EU law; for example ECJ 19 July 2012, Case C-591/10, Littlewood Retail.

93 Dougan, supra n. 87, at p. 1486.

94 This is well-established case law by the European Court of Human Rights: ECtHR 12 March 2019, No. 26374/18, Guðmundur Andri Ástráðsson v Iceland, para. 99, with further references.

95 In this regard, it is interesting to look at a recent opinion of AG Saugmandsgaard Øe, in which he stated that the duty to disapply national legislation on account of the primacy of EU law is subject to an absolute limit, where this would collide with the fundamental right to liberty as guaranteed in Art. 6 of the Charter. See Opinion of 14 November 2019 in C-752/18, Deutsche Umwelthilfe, paras. 68-89. Recently, the Court has accepted this view: ECJ 19 December 2019, C-752/18, Deutsche Umwelthilfe, para. 43.

96 In this regard one could, for example, question what the Court meant by ‘granted exclusive jurisdiction to hear and rule on a case’. It refers to this exclusive jurisdiction in para. 165 of the judgment, but never mentions it again. Does this, for example, mean that the principles that the Court sets out in this judgment only apply to national courts of which there only exists one in a legal order, like a constitutional court or a supreme court? Or must this be interpreted in the way that in any legal order, the combination of jurisdictional rules ratione materiae and ratione loci must point to one court who has exclusive jurisdiction in any given case?

97 Pech, L. and Platon, S., ‘Judicial independence under threat: The Court of Justice to the rescue in the ASJP case’, 55 Common Market Law Review (2018) p. 1827; Bonelli, M. and Claes, M., ‘Judicial Serendipity: how Portuguese judges came to the rescue of the Polish judiciary’, 14 EuConst (2018) p. 622.

98 ECJ 27 February 2018, Case C-64/16, Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses.

99 Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 85; Opinion of AG Tanchev of 20 June 2019 in C-192/18, Commission v Poland (Independence of the ordinary courts), para. 97.

100 Opinion of AG Tanchev of 24 September 2019 in C-558/18, Łowicz, para. 125; Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 145; Opinion of AG Tanchev in Commission v Poland (Independence of the ordinary courts), supra n. 99, para. 115.

101 Opinion of AG Tanchev in Commission v Poland (Independence of the ordinary courts), supra n. 99, para. 116.

102 Ibid., para. 116.

103 Commission v Poland (Independence of the Supreme Court), supra n. 6.

104 Minister for Justice and Equality (Deficiencies in the system of justice), supra n. 6.

105 A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, para. 169.

106 This raises the interesting follow-up issue of whether the Court is, similarly to Art. 47 of the Charter read in conjunction with Art. 52(3) of the Charter, required to interpret the second subparagraph of Art. 19(1) TEU in such a way as to offer a protection equal to or greater than Arts. 6 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Based on the current case law, I would argue that it is.

107 See also Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 147.

108 See A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 5, paras. 78-86; Commission v Poland (Independence of the Supreme Court), supra n. 6, paras. 50-54.

109 Pech and Platon, supra n. 97, at p. 1840.

110 This case law might be refined in future cases, like the pending case Miasto Łowicz (C-558/18). This case concerns the Polish system of disciplinary proceedings for judges after the reforms to the judicial system.

111 Among others ECJ 17 September 1997, Case C-54/96, Dorsch Consult, para. 23; ECJ 30 June 1966, Case C-34/65, Vaassen-Göbbels, paras. 29-30.

112 Bonelli and Claes, supra n. 97, p. 637; Pech and Platon, supra n. 97, p. 1842.

113 Lenaerts, K.On Judicial Independence and the Quest for National, Supranational and Transnational Justice’, in Selvik, G.et al. (eds.), The Art of Judicial Reasoning (Springer 2019) p. 155 at p. 169.

114 ECJ 13 December 2017, Case C-403/16, El Hassani, para. 40.

115 ECJ 27 February 2018, Case C-64/16, Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses, para. 44.

116 Pech and Platon, supra n. 97, p. 1842.

117 See Opinion of AG Tanchev in A.K., CP and DO, supra n. 23, para. 111; Opinion of AG Bobek of 26 October 2015 in C-551/15, Pula Parking, paras. 81-107; Opinion of AG Wahl of 10 April 2014 in C-58/13 and C-59/13, Torresi, paras. 45-54.

118 ECJ 6 May 2018, Case C-284/16, Achmea, para. 37.

119 See, in this sense, Opinion of AG Bobek, supra n. 117, para. 104. AG Kokott has referred to a rebuttable presumption of independence: Opinion of 23 January 2020 in C-658/18, UX (Statut des juges de paix italiens), paras. 46-47.

120 See, in this sense, Opinion of AG Wahl, supra n. 117, para. 49.

121 ECJ 21 January 2020, Case C-274/14, Banco de Santander.

122 ECJ 21 March 2000, Case C-110-98 to 147/98, Gabalfrisa a.o. Here, the Court ruled that a similar Spanish tax tribunal was sufficiently independent.

123 Banco de Santander, supra n. 121, paras. 78-79.

124 Among others Case C-564/19 (on the Hungarian system of appointment of court presidents by the president of the National Office of the Judiciary); C-487/19 (on the question whether a Court is still established by law if the judge has been appointed in flagrant breach of national legislation); C-291/19 (on the establishment in Romania of a section for the investigation of offences committed within the judiciary, within the prosecutor’s office).

* PhD Assistant at the University of Antwerp, Belgium; email: . I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful remarks, as well as Ane Aranguiz and Cedric Jenart for reading an earlier version of this text. All errors remain my own.

An Uncertain First Step in the Field of Judicial Self-government: ECJ 19 November 2019, Joined Cases C-585/18, C-624/18 and C-625/18, A.K., CP and DO

  • Mathieu Leloup

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