UPDATE 1-EU moves to freeze Polish law aimed at muzzling judges

(Adds Commission statements, Polish courts postponing cases)

BRUSSELS, Jan 24 (Reuters) - The European Commission asked the EU's highest court on Friday to freeze a new Polish law that allows for the dismissal of judges critical of government changes to the judiciary.

In Poland courts began postponing cases after the country's own Supreme Court said judgments issued by some judges appointed under new rules introduced by the government could be questioned.

The European Commission - the guardian of EU law, which trumps national laws - said it had told Warsaw several times that its new legislation was not compatible with EU law because it infringes on the independence of the courts.

Poland's parliament, dominated by the eurosceptic PiS party which has been at odds with the EU over the matter since it came to power in 2015, on Thursday went ahead and passed the bill into law, however.

"The Commission is very concerned about the rule of law situation in Poland, in particular regarding the final adoption amending the law of ordinary court," Commission spokesman Christian Wigand told a news briefing.

"We expressed concerns on several occasions," he said.

The Commission said its top rule of law official, the Values and Transparency Commissioner Vera Jourova, will travel to Poland next week.

PiS says its legislation is aimed at preventing chaos in the Polish judiciary.

The EU has started an unprecedented rule-of-law process against Warsaw.

Warsaw has already lost several cases in the EU's top court brought by the Commission, and the EU now wants to link the availability of tens of billions of euros from the next EU long-term budget with observing the rule of law.

Poland's Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that rulings made by judges appointed under the new rules could be questioned in view of the clash with European Union law.

The government asked the country's Constitutional Tribunal, headed by Julia Przylebska, who PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski refers to as a "close friend," to look at whether the Supreme Court has the right to rule on the matter.

The Commission responded by querying the legitimacy of the tribunal.

"We are concerned about the statement of the Polish authorities ...today. The independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal has been seriously undermined and it is no longer able to provide effective constitutional review," it said.

CASES POSTPONED

Polish judges began postponing cases after the Supreme Court ruling, suggesting even judges promoted under the reforms have doubts about the changes.

"This is a point of culmination in the conflict over the judiciary," judge Piotr Gaciarek, a member of the influential judge's association Iustitia, said.

"The Supreme Court, using the authority of its three chambers, took the resolution that will affect the jurisprudence of all courts in Poland. From now on the judgments of new judges can be questioned," he said.

The Justice Ministry said the Supreme Court decision was "invalid and was issued in gross violation of the law" and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also criticized the ruling.

"With their ruling on Thursday, Supreme Court judges want to put themselves above the Constitution," he told a news conference.

Courts such as the appeals court in Katowice in southern Poland postponed cases due to be heard on Friday by judges appointed by the new National Council of the Judiciary.

Supreme Court civil chamber judge Malgorzata Manowska, appointed to the court under PiS in 2018, said that despite the fact that she had doubts about Thursday's ruling she decided to postpone a case she was meant to hear on Friday "for the good of the parties."

Manowska was deputy justice minister in a previous PiS government. (Reporting by Marine Strauss and Jan Strupczewski in BRUSSELS and Marcin Goclowski and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk in WARSAW; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

01/24/2020 14:11

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