For another perspective on this film also read – Coming full circle
«Judging is not a job for thugs or fools. We are not cyborgs. We are regular people who have feelings», says Igor Tuleya, a Polish district court judge, in Judges Under Pressure, Kacper Lisowski’s documentary screening at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival. Tuleya is speaking to an audience as he campaigns for greater public awareness and solidarity to keep the judiciary free of undue government influence. The fact that he even has to remind people that judges are not simply robots programmed to do the regime’s bidding without compassion or thoughtful consideration underscores the existential nature of the threat the justice system has been facing since the right-wing3, populist Law & Justice party was elected to office in Poland in 2015 and announced total reforms. As the nation lurched toward greater authoritarianism, the party sought to consolidate unchecked power by destroying the independence of the courts and their ability to issue verdicts that are not politically pressured. To do this, it moved to control the appointment of new judges and forced out existing, unspoken ones who did not toe the party line. This has been a nightmare for these judges, of course, in an era in which, as one puts it, even persecution is being disguised in an illusion of civility: «First they shoot you in the head or lock you up, now they try to take your earnings and dignity». Beyond the judges, it signals a society in a precarious state of decline away from democracy, as mechanisms to safeguard citizens against abuses of power are lost, and the will of the ruling party determines all.
Tactics and trolls
Tuleya is an earnest thinker and heavy smoker who seems resigned to inhabiting his role as the community’s conscience at all hours of the day and night, as a life calling from which there is no respite. Judges Under Pressure follows him and several other judges as they struggle to defend judicial independence in Poland. They are not dissidents, they stress. They simply wish to be able to perform their duties in accordance with the constitution, as they were rightly trained, rather than rebelling against it. The so-called «muzzle bill» introduced by members of parliament in December 2019 provided a means to victimise judges who questioned the legitimacy of government appointments of prosecutors who are not sufficiently neutral. This heaped even more pressure on judges already subject to informal smear campaigns aimed at damaging their reputations. The Polish Judges Association «Iustitia» — a group of judges intent on defending the rule of law — organise protests and run workshops on navigating the current troubled landscape and dealing with intimidation tactics and trolls. We are given a glimpse into the disciplinary hearing of Judge Waldemar Zurek, who was effectively demoted after criticising the government’s judicial reforms, but whose conduct is evaluated, paradoxically, by a partisan appointee of the Ministry.
March of a Thousand Robes
The phenomenon of surging right-wing populism that has been seen around the globe in recent times is acknowledged as a broader context here, with Brexit and the pandemic both energising conservative forces in Poland in their bid to gain absolute control without being held accountable. Many lawyers have dubbed the decision by the Polish Constitutional Court that Poland doesn’t have to comply with European rulings a legal «Polexit» as the nation moves further away from the 3European Union#. Public demonstrations have been effective in galvanising public support. The March of a Thousand Robes in Warsaw in 2020 saw judges and lawyers from Poland and many other European countries take to the streets to protest the judicial reforms, joined by thousands of Polish citizens in response to the organisers’ call for support, under the slogan: «The right to independence. The right to Europe». When a near-total ban on abortion was introduced by the new government, which has close ties to Poland’s strong Catholic Church, after years of permissive legislation, amid high levels of controversy and public outcry, and widespread condemnation by members of the European Parliament, a series of pro-choice rallies erupted throughout the country. Protests and student strikes did not result in a complete reversal of anti-abortion laws in Poland. Still, it deterred the government from passing a law to restrict all abortions and brought the issue to attention across Europe, illustrating how women’s bodies are targeted for control under fascist-leaning systems and the kind of freedoms under threat in any new world order. Covid and the need for public health measures have been weaponised as excuses to crack down harder on public dissent during protests and provide more reason to stop people from gathering in the streets. Activists looked to the courts to assist them in their right to express their opinion and safeguard their rights — showing that even one’s own mind and body are at stake in the fight for a free judiciary.