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The Hypocrisy of Authoritarian Populism in Poland: Between the Facade Rhetoric of Political Constitutionalism and the Actual Abuse of Apex Courts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 February 2023

Aleksandra Kustra-Rogatka*
Associate Professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland.


A discernible rift between the rhetoric of political constitutionalism and the real policy of authoritarian populists – The rhetoric focused on political constitutionalism and popular sovereignty as a façade and a utilitarian argument justifying the introduction of counter-constitutional changes through statute laws – Captured apex courts turned into useful devices of power consolidation – The analysis of the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court – The Constitutional Tribunal as an ‘inverted court’ used increasingly often to actively shape the government’s Eurosceptic policy – A double face of the Supreme Court – The new Chambers of the Supreme Court introduced to be politically abused by authoritarian populists – Systemic interactions between two captured apex courts have a synergy effect with regard to the process of the denormativisation of the constitution – The deepening politicisation of the apex courts creates a favourable environment for further rule of law deterioration.

© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the University of Amsterdam

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The draft of this paper was presented at the first international conference of the PopCon Project ‘The populist transformation of constitutional law: Populist constitutionalism and democratic representation’, which took place on 7-8 May 2021 via Zoom. I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful and constructive comments.


1 M. Tushnet, ‘Varieties of Constitutionalism (Editorial)’, 14(1) International Journal of Constitutional Law (2016) s. 1-5.

2 G. Frankenberg, ‘Authoritarian Constitutionalism: Coming to Terms with Modernity Nightmares’, in H.A. Garcia and G. Frankenberg (eds.), Authoritarian Constitutionalism. Comparative Analysis and Critique (Edward Elgar 2019) p. 1.

3 N. Walker, ‘Populism and Constitutional Tension’, 17 International Journal of Constitutional Law (2019) p. 515.

4 Following Juan José Linz’s classical categories, authoritarianism is in between democratic and totalitarian political systems: see J.J. Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Lynne Rienner 2000).

5 G. Halmai, ‘Populism, Authoritarianism and Constitutionalism’, 20 German Law Journal (2019) p. 296 at p. 298.

6 D. Collier and S. Levitsky, ‘Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research’, 49 World Politics (1997) p. 430.

7 S. Levitsky and L.A. Way, ‘Elections without Democracy. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism’, 13 Journal of Democracy (2002) p. 51.

8 W. Sadurski, Poland’s Constitutional Breakdown (Oxford University Press 2019) p. 242-243.

9 M. Wyrzykowski and M. Ziółkowski, ‘Illiberal Constitutionalism and the Judiciary in Poland’, in A. Sajó and R. Uitz, Routledge Handbook of Illiberalism (Routledge 2021) p. 517.

10 P. Castillo-Ortiz, ‘The Illiberal Abuse of Constitutional Courts in Europe’, 15 EuConst (2019) p. 48 at p. 67, 70.

11 R. Bellamy, Political Constitutionalism. A Republican Defence of the Constitutionality of Democracy (Cambridge University Press 2009) p. 145.

12 C. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (University of Chicago Press 2007) p. 26-32.

13 P. Minkkinen, ‘Political Constitutionalism versus Political Constitutional Theory: Law, Power, and Politics’, 11 International Journal of Constitutional Law (2013) p. 585.

14 L. Corrias, ‘Populism in Constitutional Key: Constituent Power, Popular Power, Popular Sovereignty and Constitutional Identity’, 12(1) EuConst (2016) p. 16.

15 P. Blokker, ‘Populism, Constituent Power and Constitutional Imagination’, in M. Belov (ed.), Populist Constitutionalism and Illiberal Democracies. Between Constitutional Imagination, Normative Entrenchment and Political Reality (Intersentia 2021) p. 155.

16 J. Grant, ‘Justifying Constituent Power in an Age of Populism’, 52 Polity (2020) p. 3.

17 Walker, supra n. 3.

18 P. Blokker, ‘Populism as Constitutional Project’, 17(2) International Journal of Constitutional Law (2019) p. 535-536.

19 Ibid., p. 535-536.

20 Corrias, supra n. 14, p. 18-19.

21 G. Halmai, ‘Illiberal Constitutional Theories’, 5 Ius Politicum (2020) p. 147.

22 A. Cannilla, ‘Political constitutionalism in the age of populism’, 46 Revus (2022), ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

23 K.L. Scheppele, ‘Autocratic Legalism’, 85 The University of Chicago Law Review (2018) p. 545.

24 A. Czarnota, ‘Constitutional Breakdown, Backsliding, or New Post-Conventional Constitutionalism?’, in U. Belavusau and A. Gliszczyńska-Grabias (eds.), Constitutionalism under Stress. Essays in Honour of Wojciech Sadurski (Oxford University Press 2020) p. 48; M. Stambulski and A. Czarnota, ‘Janusowe oblicze konstytucjonalizmu’, 11 Krytyka Prawa (2019) p. 16; A. Czarnota, ‘Constitutional Tribunal’, Verfassungsblog, 3 June 2017, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

25 G. Halmai, ‘Illiberal Constitutionalism in East-Central Europe’, EUI Working Paper LAW 2019/05, p. 14-16, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

26 M. Stambulski, ‘Nowa gra w mieście. Polityczny konstytucjonalizm jako krytyka dogmatyki konstytucyjnej/New game in town. Political constitutionalism as a criticism of constitutional dogmatism’, in Jaki konstytucjonalizm? Refleksje nad ‘New Democracies in Crisis?’ Paula Blokkera [What Constitutionalism? Notes on Paul Blokker’s ‘New Democracies in Crisis?’], Politicon I, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

27 Czarnota (2020), supra n. 24.

28 Halmai, supra n. 25.

29 P. Blokker, ‘From Legal to Political Constitutionalism?’, Verfassungsblog, 4 June 2017 ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

30 Cannilla, supra n. 22.

31 Halmai, supra n. 5, p. 297-298.

32 The official name of the Polish state is the ‘Republic of Poland’.

33 A. Kustra-Rogatka, ‘An Illiberal Turn or a Counter-Constitutional Revolution? About the Polish Constitutional Tribunal Before and After 2015’, in M. Belov (ed.), Courts and Judicial Activism under Crisis Conditions. Policy Making in a Time of Illiberalism and Emergency Constitutionalism (Routledge 2022) p. 111.

34 P. Tacik, ‘Polish Constitutionalism under Populist Rule. Revolution without a Revolution’, in Belov (ed.), supra n. 15, p. 288.

35 An in-depth analysis of the reasons for the rise of populists to power is presented in I. Krastev and S. Holmes, The Light that Failed. Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy (Penguin Books 2019), J. Zielonka, Counter-Revolution Liberal Europe in Retreat (Oxford University Press 2018); P. Blokker, New Democracies in Crisis? A Comparative Constitutional Study of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, (Routledge 2015).

36 Andrzej Duda, elected to the office of President in May 2015 (and reelected in 2020), turned out to be a head of state who would accept the Law and Justice political scenario and signed most of the controversial laws enacted by the Sejm. The few decisions to veto a bill were all to create an illusion of independence.

37 Tacik, supra n. 34, p. 288-291.

38 Ibid., p. 288.

39 The procedure for amending the Polish Basic Law is governed by Art. 235 of the Constitution.

40 A comprehensive scholarly analysis of the process of the rule of law and constitutional backsliding in Poland is provided in Sadurski, supra n. 8.

41 For more on both the differences and similarities between the illiberal constitutionalism in Poland and Hungary see T. Drinóczi and A. Bień-Kacała, Illiberal Constitutionalism in Poland and Hungary. The Deterioration of Democracy, Misuse of Human Rights and Abuse of the Rule of Law (Routledge 2022).

42 R. Jurszo, ‘PiS chce “normalnej demokracji”. Liberalna mu nie pasuje. Szczera do bólu wypowiedź Waszczykowskiego’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

43 P. Pacewicz, ‘Na konwencji PiS Kaczyński zmienił nam ustrój: “Istotą demokracji jest realizowanie obietnic wyborczych”’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

44 P. Pacewicz, ‘Kaczyński: Jeden naród, jeden Kościół. “Demokracja skonstruowana prosto”. “Każdy dobry Polak musi…”’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

45 ‘Kaczyński: Nie jestem reżyserem w teatrze kukiełek’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

46 ‘Kaczyński: Przyjdzie taki dzień, że zmienimy konstytucję’, ⟨,kaczynski-konsytucja-zmiana-pis-wybory.html⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

47 L. Morawski, ‘A Critical Response’, Verfassungsblog, 3 June 2017, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

48 Ibid.

49 ‘Kaczyński: Chcemy dobrego Trybunału. To nie jest Trybunał w obecnym składzie’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

50 ‘Kaczyński: Polskie sądownictwo to gigantyczny skandal, 10 February 2017’, ⟨,polskie-sadownictwo-kaczynski-pis.html,komentarze-najnowsze,1⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

51 ‘Orędzie Beaty Szydło ws. sądów. “Nad korporacją sędziowską nie ma kontroli”’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

52 K. Pawłowicz, ‘Sędziokracja walczy dziś z demokracją… Sędziowie sami obalają mity o swojej apolityczności, niezawisłości i niezależności sądów’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

53 This scheme of the gradual taking over of the counter-majoritarian body in relation to the Constitutional Tribunal is very aptly described in W. Sadurski, ‘Polish Constitutional Tribunal under PiS: from an Activist Court, to a Paralysed Tribunal, to a Governmental Enabler’, 11 Hague Journal on the Rule of Law (2019) p. 63.

54 Hereinafter, the ‘Chamber for Extraordinary Review’.

55 With regard to constitutional courts see Castillo-Ortiz, supra n. 10, p. 51.

56 See also M. Ziółkowski, ‘Two Faces of the Polish Supreme Court after “Reforms” of the Judiciary System in Poland: The Question of Judicial Independence and Appointments’, 5 European Papers (2020) p. 347.

57 A. Bernstein and G. Staszewski, ‘Judicial Populism’, Minnesota Law Review (2021) p. 283, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

58 Sadurski, supra n. 53, p. 77.

59 A. Śledzińksa-Simon, ‘The Rise and Fall of Judicial Self-Government in Poland: On Judicial Reform Reversing Democratic Transition’, 19 German Law Journal (2019) p. 1839 at p. 1848-1851.

60 Arts. 9a and 11a of the Act.

61 Art. 6 of the Act.

62 J. Bojarski, ‘Jak przywrócić państwo prawa? Krajowa Rada Sądownictwa’, p. 8, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

63 These flaws result from the fact that persons who were unlawfully elected to the position of Constitutional Tribunal judge participated in deciding all presented cases.

64 Śledzńska-Simon, supra n. 59, p. 1840.

65 W. Brzozowski, ‘Whatever Works. Constitutional Interpretation in Poland in Times of Populism’, in F. Gárdos-Orosz and Z. Szente (eds.), Populist Challenges to Constitutional Interpretation in Europe and Beyond (Routledge 2021) p. 188.

66 A. Gliszczyńska-Grabias and W. Sadurski, ‘The Judgment That Wasn’t (But Which Nearly Brought Poland to a Standstill). “Judgment” of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal of 22 October 2020, K1/20’, 17(1) EuConst (2021) p. 130.

67 For more about the historical context of the abortion law in Poland see Gliszczyńska-Grabias and Sadurski, ibid.

68 M. Bucholc, ‘Abortion Law and Human Rights in Poland: The Closing of the Jurisprudential Horizon’, 14 Hague Journal on the Rule of Law (2022) p. 88.

69 Ibid., p. 89.

70 A. Kustra-Rogatka, ‘Populist but not Popular. The Abortion Judgment of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’, Verfassungsblog, 3 November 2020, ⟨⟩, visited 3 February 2023.

71 M. Chrzczonowicz, ‘66 proc. za prawem kobiety do przerwania ciąży do 12. tygodnia. Wśród młodych to aż 80 proc.’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023; P. Nowosielska et al., ‘Co sądzimy o prawie do aborcji? Młodzi niemal jednomyślni [SONDAŻ]’, ⟨,aborcja-w-polsce-sondaz-mlodzi-zlagodzenie-zaostrzenie.html⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

72 Such an evaluation of the jurisprudence of the Belgian SK and Austrian SK is primarily due to the fact that these courts are the leaders in the number of questions referred for a preliminary ruling to the ECJ. Nevertheless, in recent years, certain decisions concerning the membership of said courts in the EU have raised a great deal of controversy. Cf P. Gérard and W. Verrijdt, ‘Belgian Constitutional Court Adopts National Identity Discourse Belgian Constitutional Court no. 62/2016, 28 April 2016’, 13(1) EuConst (2017) p. 182; A. Orator, ‘The Decision of the Austrian Verfassungsgerichtshof on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: An Instrument of Leverage or Rearguard Action?’, 16 German Law Journal (2016) p. 1429.

73 K 18/04, P 1/05, SK 45/09, K 32/09.

74 E.g. P 1/05, in which the Constitutional Tribunal obliged the parliament to amend the Constitution so as to ensure its compliance with the European Arrest Warrant and obliged the courts to apply the Framework Decision on the EAW until the amendment to the Constitution entered into force.

75 Kustra-Rogatka, supra n. 33, p. 121.

76 For more on the ECJ judgment in case A.K. v Poland see M. Krajewski and M. Ziółkowski, ‘Court of Justice EU Judicial Independence Decentralized: A.K’, 57 Common Market Law Review (2020) p. 1107.

77 ECJ 8 April 2020, Case C-791/19.

78 Para 2.6 of the part III of the justification.

79 Para 2.8 of the part III of the justification.

80 J. Jaraczewski, ‘Polexit or Judicial Dialogue? CJEU and Polish Constitutional Tribunal in July 2021’, Verfassungsblog, 19 July 2021, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

81 Para 8 of the part III of the reasoning.

82 For more about the political and legal context of the aforementioned cases before the European Court of Justice and the Polish Constitutional Tribunal see Jaraczewski, supra n. 80; L. Pech, ‘Protecting Polish Judges from Political Control. A Brief Analysis of the ECJ’s Infringement Ruling in Case C-791/19 (Disciplinary Regime for Judges) and Order in Case C-204/21 R (Muzzle Law)’, Verfassungsblog, 20 July 2021, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

83 So called ‘partial judgments’ (Pol: wyroki zakresowe) are judgments in which the Constitutional Tribunal states that a legal provision is compliant or non-compliant with the Constitution in a specific (subjective, objective or temporal) scope of its application.

84 Brzozowski, supra n. 65.

85 Jaraczewski, supra n. 80; T.T. Koncewicz, ‘Poland and Europe at a Critical Juncture. What has Happened? What is Happening? What’s Next?’, Verfassungsblog, 16 August 2021, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023; M. Nettesheim, ‘Exclusion from the EU is Possible as a Last Resort’, Verfassungsblog, 3 November 2021, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023, H.C.H. Hofmann, ‘Sealed, Stamped and Delivered. The Publication of the Polish Constitutional Court’s Judgment on EU Law Primacy as Notification of Intent to Withdraw under Art. 50 TEU?’, Verfassungsblog, 13 October 2021, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023; M. Rasmussen, ‘A More Complex Union. How Will the EU React to the Polish Challenge? A Historical Perspective’, Verfassungsblog, 4 November 2021, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

86 ECtHR 1 December 2020, No. 26374/18.

87 See further M. Szwed, ‘What Should and What Will Happen After Xero Flor’, Verfassungsblog, 9 May 2021, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

88 For more on this ruling see E. Łętowska, ‘The Honest (though Embarrassing) Coming-out of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’, Verfassungsblog, 29 November 2021 ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

89 A. Ploszka, ‘It Never Rains but it Pours. The Polish Constitutional Tribunal Declares the European Convention on Human Rights Unconstitutional’, Hague Journal on the Rule of Law (2022), ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

91 Ustawa z dnia 9 czerwca 2022 r. o zmianie ustawy o Sądzie Najwyższym oraz niektórych innych ustaw, Dz. U. 2022, poz. 1259.

92 At the time of writing this paper, the temporary composition of Chamber of Professional responsibility is made up of five judges (including three appointed with the participation of the politically captured National Council of the Judiciary). Candidates for the Chamber of Professional Accountability were drawn by the First President of the Supreme Court, Małgorzata Manowska. From among them, President Andrzej Duda is to appoint the judges who will make up the final composition of the Chamber.

93 D. Sitnicka, ‘Extraordinary Control and Public Affairs Chamber to Euthanise the Supreme Court’s Own Resolution’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

94 K. Żaczkiewicz-Zborska, ‘Izba Kontroli Nadzwyczajnej wróciła do orzekania. Teraz skargi wyborcze’, ⟨,499394.html⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

95 Ustawa z dnia 20 grudnia 2019 r. o zmianie ustawy – Prawo o ustroju sądów powszechnych, ustawy o Sądzie Najwyższym oraz niektórych innych ustaw, Dz.U.2020, poz. 190.

96 See M. Krajewski, M. Ziółkowski, ‘Can an Unlawful Judge be the First President of the Supreme Court?’, Verfassungsblog, 25 May 2020 ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

97 Ustawa z dnia 27 lipca 2001 r. Prawo o ustroju sądów powszechnych, Dz. U. z 2020 r. poz. 2072, 2021 r. poz. 1080, 1236.

98 K. Gajda-Roszczynialska and K. Markiewicz, ‘Disciplinary Proceedings as an Instrument for Breaking the Rule of Law in Poland’, 12 Hague Journal on the Rule of Law (2020) p. 465.

99 Ibid., p. 465.

100 Ibid., p. 469.

101 Case II DO 1/20; Part 5.4. of the justification.

102 Case II DO 74/20.

103 Disciplinary Chamber judgment of 18 November 2020, Case II DO 74/20, p. 11.

104 It is ironic that at this point the Supreme Court referred to the previously quoted paper of the first Polish Ombudsman and retired judge of the Constitutional Tribunal, Professor Ewa Łętowska, titled ‘The Decalogue of a Good Judge’, 1(30) Krajowa Rada Sądownictwa. Kwartalnik (March 2016) p. 6. In the quoted text Łętowska warned judges against ‘listening to the murmurs of the streets and newspapers’, which could be be identified with judicial populism.

105 Disciplinary Chamber judgment of 18 November 2020, case II DO 74/20, p. 21-22.

106 Disciplinary Chamber resolution of 22 April 2021, case II DO 74/20.

107 Ibid., p. 44

108 M. Jałoszewski, ‘After Tuleya, the Disciplinary Chamber is taking on Prof. Wróbel from the Supreme Court’, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

109 Disciplinary Chamber Resolution of 31 May 2021, case I DI 19/21.

110 See further Ziółkowski, supra n. 56, p. 359.

111 Until the Law and Justice judiciary ‘reform’, the then Labour Law, Social Security and Public Affairs Chamber decided in this respect.

112 The most controversial element of the National Electoral Commission’s resolution was the statement that this fact ‘is equivalent in effect to the impossibility to vote due to lack of candidates, provided for in Article 293 (3) of the Electoral Code’, in which case the Marshal of the Sejm shall re-order elections within 14 days of the announcement of the resolution. The new election date should be within 60 days of the day when the Marshal of the Sejm decides.

113 Sygn. akt I NSW 5890/20.

114 M. Pronczuk, citing M. Wawrykiewicz (a lawyer from the Free Courts Initiative) words: see M. Pronczuk, ‘Poland’s Supreme Court Declares Presidential Election Valid’, New York Times, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

115 With regard to constitutional courts see Castillo-Ortiz, supra n. 10, p. 63.

116 Castillo-Ortiz, supra n. 10, p. 67.

117 M. Krajewski and M. Ziółkowski, ‘The Power of “Appearances”’, Verfassungsblog, 26 November 2019, ⟨⟩, visited 24 January 2023.

118 Legal questions brought by the Disciplinary Chamber Case: Case P 22/19 (Constitutional Tribunal judgment of 4 March 2020), P 7/20 (Constitutional Tribunal judgment of 14 July 2021), Case P 2/20 and Case P 3/20 (still waiting to be decided). Legal questions brought by the Chamber of Extraordinary Review: Case P 10/19 (still awaiting adjudication).

119 Scheppele, supra n. 23, p. 547.

120 J. Corrales, ‘Autocratic Legalism in Venezuela’, 26 Journal of Democracy (2015) p. 38.