Ten years have passed since the beginning of the four Polish musketeers' cooperation towards a common goal. Their motto "One for all, all for one" sounds like a grim joke today. There is no return to cooperation anymore.
A glance at the website of Poland’s largest and one of Europe’s most numerous judicial associations may come as a surprise today. The history page of the Association of Polish Judges Iustitia lists all its authorities to date. You could call it a Hall of Fame of judges, who have meritoriously contributed to the construction of the judiciary and the rule of law.
They met once, in a single association: the former deputy minister of justice, the grey eminence of a judiciary internet forum, the current leader of Iustitia, as well as another leader, who is now president of a large regional court.
These comrades-in-arms, now on both sides of the barricade, used to work together. What is more, they were unanimous in their command of the association, at an important moment in its transformation. This was in the years 2010-13, which were crucial with regard to the current dispute over the justice system.
The story of these four men is also a story about how Central European judges understand the rule of law and the necessity of making decisions. And perhaps it is a story about a bitter affair with politics.
The heroes of Dumas
Let us call them the four musketeers, because some of their features resemble the heroes of Dumas, faithfully and together from the beginning serving Themis – the Titan goddess of divine law and order. And then? Still serving law and justice, not only in small letters.
It all started with a certain internet forum. Portos – Rafał Puchalski, a dozen or so years ago a judge of the district court in Jarosław – decided to unite judges from all over Poland. Before, judges in Poland met with each other quite rarely, only on the occasion of official training meetings or conferences.
Portos’ idea was as simple as brilliant. An internet forum for judges, allowing not only to solve legal problems but simply connecting the community. A judicial environment that initially did not realise its strength. It was broken, divided and conflicted. These divisions were very easy to exploit from the inside and the outside.
The forum was like a Swiss army knife. It allowed judges to complain, to find quick advice and legal consultation, to get the latest news from the ministry or even culinary recipes. Just a Facebook for the third branch of power.
With time, the forum became a real, natural representation of Polish judges. Especially the younger ones, comfortable with new technologies (recall the internet forums of the first decade of the 21st century).
Since the forum was like a folding knife, its blade could be a dangerous tool in the hands of its owner. It could also have hurt or injured those standing nearby.
Overwhelmingly, the judges of the forum were not members of the Iustitia association. They were angry, or as angry as the judge’s corset allowed. They were certainly pissed off.
The judges’ association was active too little and too vague for them. It was not enough, it did not deal with the current cases. Yes, it spoke on behalf of the judges, but rarely and in a mumbled voice.
When the younger judges demanded an increase in salaries, organisational changes in the courts, criticised the regulations or the strategy of the Ministry of Justice – the association remained silent.
It was sometimes referred to as a “travel agency” by the younger ones because its activities were seen mainly as organising sightseeing or canoeing trips.
Athos was a distinguished member of the association and at the same time an active forum member – Maciej Strączyński. An experienced and expressive judge of the regional court in Szczecin. For many years he was a vice-president of the association and, as with Dumas, a representative of the court aristocracy – regional judges, not the district crowd.
He decided to command not only the musketeers but the whole association. He took up its transformation, took into account the challenges, including communication, of the new times. Combine the old with the new, making a new opening.
An effective takeover
The year 2010 was the moment when the energy of institutional change emerged from the informal, somewhat underground structure.
First, the “people from the forum” enrolled en masse in the association. Then, from among themselves, they actually selected delegates for the national convention. The election of the national board turned out to be a formality. It was headed by Athos, who was able to convince a large group of new members and calm down the existing ones.
It was not a hostile takeover. It was, above all, an effective one.
Aramis – Lukasz Piebiak – became a board member, representing the difficult working environment of judges in the capital. Like his literary prototype, he was both ideological and pragmatic. D’Artagnan said in the novel about Aramis: “When you were a musketeer, you resembled a priest, and when you are a priest, you resembled a musketeer”.
Aramis, from 2015 on, when he was a judge, behaved like a politician, a vice-minister of justice; and when he was a full-time politician, he recalled his former position as a judge.
On several occasions, while representing the government in the Sejm, he has been reprimanding judges and politicians of the opposition. He spoke with deep conviction.
It was Aramis who resigned from the office of deputy minister in the summer of 2019, when the media revealed a scandal concerning a smear campaign, which consisted, among other things, in sending to the members of the association a defamatory letter, slandering D’Artagnan – Krystian Markiewicz.
The Minister of Justice quickly called the entire heist campaign against the judges “a family quarrel”. The judges were guilty again.
The latter – Markiewicz – appeared on the historical board as a representative of Upper Silesia. Bold, uncompromising and brave. Unlike the knight from Gascony, he was much less naive, combining an academic career with adjudication in court.
The board that included the four musketeers led Iustitia for three years, until April 2013. Then, Athos remained at the helm for another term of office and was supported by Aramis. He supported Athos until he resigned in October 2015, to be appointed as deputy minister of justice one month later.
Aramis then invited Portos to the ministry – the founder and administrator of the forum. He brought his network of contacts and a great deal of insider knowledge about the forum.
Chains of light
At the next general assembly of the association, in 2016, D’Artagnan was elected president of the association, Athos temporarily moved into the shadows. Soon, Portos and then followed by Athos became presidents of the courts with the involvement of Aramis.
Portos also became a member of the National Judicial Council. He is still hungry for more and is currently applying for the position of Supreme Court judge.
Athos heads the large Regional Court in Szczecin, and he occasionally challenges the decisions of the Ministry of Justice or threatens public television with a lawsuit for defaming the judges he heads. Still, in his belief, he guards the rule of law.
Today, D’Artagnan is president of the Iustitia association (on a second term). He has given it a brand-new quality, focusing on education, building legal awareness and defending the independence and sovereignty of the courts and judges. For this, he is regularly attacked by supporters of the judicial reform proposed by the government. Despite many obstacles, Iustitia’s path is now consistent and predictable.
It was also at the initiative of Iustitia in Poland that the “chains of light” were lit in 2017. It was probably the first moment when international news agencies showed to the whole world the crowds of people with candles standing before the Polish courts.
At the beginning of 2020, the international recognition and credibility of the association led to the participation of judges and lawyers from almost all over Europe in Warsaw’s “March of 1000 Robes”, in addition to 30,000 Polish participants. Again, pictures and recordings from the silent march circulated in world media.
Finally, Iustitia is present at music festivals, book fairs, and legal cafés – meetings with lawyers in cafés or community centres – are held in many Polish cities. The judges go out to society and speak with a human voice, for the first time in decades.
This is all thanks to D’Artagnan and his team. It is their conviction that every citizen will recognise that the third branch of power is as important as the other ones when the judiciary is brought closer to society. Especially in the era of populist manifestations.
Ten years have passed since the beginning of the historical musketeers’ cooperation towards a common goal. Their motto “One for all, all for one” sounds like a grim joke today. There is no return to cooperation anymore.
The current state is more like a civil war or a general brawl. Portos and Aramis are in a completely different camp – close to those in power. Athos is trying to behave decently, while D’Artagnan commands the next attacks and coordinates the defence.
This conflict will not have a simple and quick, constructive solution. It will not be without victims. The rule of law will regularly be hit by a ricochet.
Feed kids with ethos
In this era of exclusion – when key fuses of the rule of law in Poland such as the Constitutional Court, the National Council of the Judiciary and gradually the Supreme Court are either compromised or sidelined – all hope and expectations must be put in grassroots initiatives such as judicial associations.
Such associations, or informal networks of important professionals, can play important roles, as watchdogs and orderlies, in the new world order. But we will see about this in the coming decades.
The internet community, which has taken over the real association and plays a key role in it, probably needs a moment of reflection on the adopted methods. At the time, the goal probably sanctified the means. But was it worthy of a musketeer’s honour?
While informal networks of judges can result in brilliant and unexpected careers for individuals, they can also build barricades to others.
Two of the four musketeers are closer to the present power, the third one keeps an equal distance. The fourth – Krystian Markiewicz – leads an association that is now absolutely opposed to the government’s march for justice.
One of the arguments of the “judges of the forum” against the association in its previous form was its passivity in matters of judges’ salaries and lack of their valorisation. “We cannot feed kids with ethos”, said these voices in disappointment.
However, it is precisely this ethos that should not permit judges from the association to take up functions in the ministry or stand for constitutionally questionable bodies such as the National Judicial Council.
As it turns out, even organisations of people who are guided by the highest professional values can understand such values very differently during challenging times.
A profound rethinking of an association’s mission and values seems to be a necessary start, for Iustitia and any network wishing to be an important actor on the main stage.