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Poland’s top judge inflames with rulings and political ties. She insists she’s independent.

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WARSAW — Julia Przyłębska, one of Poland’s highest-ranking judges, may have chatted with the prime minister’s office before making critical decisions. And she is close friends with the country’s de facto leader. 

To hear Przyłębska tell it, though, she’s fastidiously independent. 

At one point during a nearly hour-and-a-half-long interview recently, Przyłębska, the 62-year-old head of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, handed over an elegant copy of Poland’s constitution with one article marked by a yellow post-it. 

The article reads: “Judges of the Constitutional Tribunal, in the exercise of their office, shall be independent and subject only to the Constitution.”

“I can assure you that my performance is guided by this very principle,” she said, sitting in front of a gloomy landscape by Polish artist Stefan Popowski and across from three senior Tribunal officials listening silently.

Yet the more Przyłębska proclaims her independence, the more her opponents accuse her of being nothing but a puppet of Poland’s governing, hard-right Law and Justice (PiS) party. 

In early July, the most tangible evidence yet fell into their hands. According to emails leaked from the Polish prime minister’s office, Przyłębska discussed three specific cases ahead of a ruling with the prime minister’s chief of staff. The damaging revelations added to another long-standing fact: Przyłębska is friends with Jarosław Kaczyński, the heavy-handed PiS leader, meeting him on a private basis, even as the Tribunal’s chair, to discuss art and literature, but — she claims — never politics.

“In the past, Tribunal’s rulings sparked controversies,” said Bartłomiej Przymusiński, the head of Iustitia, an association of judges that is often at odds with the government, in Poznań, Przyłębska’s hometown in western Poland. “But never before have judges been assumed to be inspired by politicians. Under Przyłębska it became a new normal.”

The leaked emails cemented the Przyłębska-led Tribunal’s image as a PiS tool. The rulings had lent PiS a helping hand in its ongoing battle over judicial reforms and augmented the government’s Euroskeptic narrative by questioning the EU’s basic legal foundations. They also furthered Warsaw’s collision course with Brussels over rule-of-law concerns, which has left the country unable to access billions in EU pandemic recovery funds. 

Still, Przyłębska, like Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, blames unnamed “Russian provocateurs” for leaking the emails in order to “destabilize the situation in Poland.”

“I do not consult on rulings with anyone,” she said.

An unlikely rise

Until Przyłębska was elected by PiS as a Tribunal member in December 2015, she had lived a rather low-key existence. 

Julia Przyłębska signs documents after being sworn in office as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on December 9, 2015 | Jacek Turczyk/EPA

Przyłębska served as a judge on the regional court in Poznań and briefly as a chair of the court’s social insurance department. For a time, she was also a consul at Poland’s embassy in Germany — a fairly modest portfolio for a post seen as the crown jewel of legal careers. 

Law wasn’t even Przyłębska’s first choice of study. Although she’s the daughter of a Poznań-based notary, she wanted to study art restoration or the Hungarian language (she claims to have spoken basic Hungarian), but there were no openings the year she graduated high school. 

But it was precisely this biography — solid but unremarkable, far away from cosmopolitan Warsaw — that made Przyłębska something of a perfect fit for the PiS vision of the country’s new legal elite.

The old one, Kaczyński has long argued, was inefficient and demoralized. This fresh wave of jurists who took senior positions in Kaczyński’s Poland was chosen the same way he picked his closest circle: by prizing loyalty over traditional qualifications. The Tribunal was no different — over the years, it became packed with three judges allegedly wrongfully appointed, two former hardline PiS parliament members and the justice minister’s closest associate, among others.

The result, critics say, is a pliant top court willing to rubber stamp — and enable — PiS policies.

One of Przyłębska’s most prominent moves came last October, when the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that some elements of the EU’s treaties are incompatible with Poland’s constitution. The ruling essentially challenged the EU’s entire legal framework, which is based on the notion that, where the EU has been granted authority, its laws outrank those in each country.

Another ruling claimed the Polish constitution is also partly incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, a pact that has driven European law for decades.

In practice, these rulings helped the PiS government to cement controversial judicial reforms in the country and ignore a series of EU court reprimands over the moves. 

“PiS deputies have used the Tribunal to legitimize changes introduced in Poland,” said Marek Safjan, a judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union and one of Przyłębska’s predecessors as head of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. “And they seem to be sure of the final result.”

Przyłębska vigorously disputes the notion. 

“It was not a judgment against the EU or Poland’s place in the EU,” she argued. “On the contrary, it was a judgment that pointed out many misconceptions in the interpretations of the EU treaties.”

And, she claims, her interactions with PiS bigwigs have had no bearing on her decisions. Her connections to powerful PiS figures are merely social in nature, she explained. For instance, she admits to having known Kaczyński since the 2010s, but insists the friendship is one of shared cultural interests.

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party | Radek Pietruszka/EPA-EFE

“He’s a fascinating man who tells a lot of interesting stories about life; a witness to history,” she said, but refusing to reveal whether they are on first-name terms. Kaczyński in turn famously called Przyłębska his “social discovery,” a bon mot which she finds “agreeable,” but which also provoked the opponents to brand her as “Kaczyński’s cook.”

“There is no such regulation to prevent someone from socializing with people whom one met before taking the post. And I must immodestly say that I cook very well,” she remarked, listing Lithuanian cold beet soup as her signature dish.

‘Obedient Julia’

Przyłębska’s former colleagues simply see an unqualified individual essentially working for PiS.

POLITICO reached nearly a dozen judges who worked with Przyłębska at the Constitutional Tribunal. Only one agreed to talk about her at length and insisted on anonymity. The others replied over the phone or via email by tersely expressing their frustration about what in theory is one of Poland’s greatest legal authorities — head of the Constitutional Tribunal.

“I can’t say anything positive,” relayed one judge.

“Our contacts were reduced to a minimum as, in short, we were not curious about one other,” another recalled. 

“Working with her had a negative impact on my health,” another vented. 

“I don’t know this lady,” yet another said, “and let it stay that way.”

The one judge who decided to share views over coffee called Przyłębska “obedient Julia,” describing a chaotic management style, laziness and allegations that she illegally manipulated the Tribunal’s makeup so it would reach PiS-friendly decisions. 

“She’s a poor jurist,” the person said. “Compared to what the Tribunal used to be, it’s a crump in terms of the quality of the work and the culture of behavior.”

Przyłębska has never paid much mind to such critiques. “I can look at myself in the mirror,” she said. “I haven’t done anything that would violate my independence. A judge must be brave.”

Her bravery, for lack of a better word, can’t be denied. Another controversial Tribunal ruling in October 2020 virtually ended legal abortion — also fully in line with PiS policy — and provoked the largest protests in Poland since the fall of communism in 1989. Another massive wave of demonstrations later erupted when a 30-year-old woman died after being refused an abortion. Her family recorded a chat with a doctor who stated that he would not perform the procedure due to harsh anti-abortion law. 

In October 2020, a constitutional ruling virtually banned abortion in Poland | Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

“The sentence was not against women. There was absolutely no such situation that the Tribunal’s judgment bound doctors’ hands,” said Przyłębska, privately a staunch Catholic, visibly distressed. 

Still, despite being disregarded by mainstream legal circles — and with almost 51 percent of people recently saying the Tribunal is dependent on the government — Przyłębska seems intent on gaining some respect.

She pitches herself as a savvy, successful woman who, against all odds, has found the balance between a career and a happy home life.

“The fact that I made a professional career and gave birth to two sons says a lot about my husband, with whom I have been over 40 years. Really, we’re not from another planet,” she said. “Primarily, we are not opportunists.”

But Przyłębska’s family has caused problems, too. Her husband, philosophy professor Andrzej Przyłębski, was Poland’s ambassador to Germany until late January and is known for his devoted defense of PiS policy. Meanwhile, her son Marcin works for PZU, Poland’s publicly traded insurance company. To some, it’s a model example of the family preying on the PiS system.

Przyłębska, however, can imagine life outside the PiS umbrella: In retirement, she wants to write a novel, which she has already come up with a plot for.

The opposition has different plans for her. “If an investigation shows that she consulted her decisions with PiS politicians, she should be criminally liable,” said Krzysztof Śmiszek, a lawyer and parliament member with the Left alliance.

“She can write this novel behind bars,” he added with a smile.

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