Not every democracy needs a supreme court with the power to block legislation it deems unconstitutional. But Poland’s reforms of its Constitutional Tribunal, enacted by a right-wing majority and signed into law by a conservative president, are worrisome signs for the country’s prospects of democratic government. The political timing — and the nature of the changes — provides a valuable guide to what judicial review is good for, and why so many countries have adopted it since World War II.
The changes in Poland took place in the wake of a landslide victory by the Law and Justice party in October, when it became the first party to win a parliamentary majority since Poland became a democracy in 1989. The new changes make it easier to investigate and remove judges from the tribunal, but that’s not the main problem. The real trouble lies with a provision that now requires a two-thirds majority of the court’s judges to rule on the constitutionality of the country’s laws.