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Poland's judges halt sessions to protest planned changes

WARSAW, Poland — Judges in Poland took a 30-minute break from court sessions Thursday to protest government plans to restructure a council that enforces judicial ethics and evaluates judgeship candidates, saying the changes would leave them open to political influence.

Many judges agree the country's judicial system needs reform to make their work more efficient and to speed up dragging cases, but say the government plan to reorganize the National Council of the Judiciary is going in the wrong direction.

The plan, currently being considered by lawmakers, calls for parliament to appoint 15 of the council's 25 judges and for the current members, all appointed by judges, to be dismissed.

The council's tasks include drawing up and enforcing ethical guidelines for judges, reviewing judicial candidates and seeking opinions on new rules and regulations to ensure they are constitutional .

In protest, judges took breaks to attend specially organized meetings. If submitted to a vote, the draft law would likely win backing as the ruling Law and Justice party has a majority. It is not clear when the vote will take place.

The opposition parties also criticized the government's plans.

"We all know that the justice system is calling for a reform, but Law and Justice just wants to raze Poland's courts to the ground," Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz of the Modern party said.

The move is another step in ruling party's efforts to take control of the judiciary, which have been strongly criticized by European Union leaders.

Shortly after taking power in 2015, the party moved to appoint judges of its own choice to a top court, the constitutional Tribunal. Law and Justice also wants to replace the head of the Supreme Court and to reorganize the work of the nation's lower-level courts.

The government says the changes are need because of general dissatisfaction with the slow pace at which courts handle cases.

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