The ruling by the European Court of Justice offers a reprieve to judges who were being forced off the bench under a new Polish law that lowers the retirement age to 65.

The government’s critics say the law represents an attempt to pack the court with sympathetic judges and subvert judicial independence. Poland has suggested it will resist any attempt by European Union authorities to intervene in what it regards as a purely domestic decision, setting up a potential clash.

 Europe’s top court ordered Poland’s government on Friday to immediately halt implementation of a controversial law designed to force more than a dozen of the nation’s Supreme Court justices into early retirement.

The surprise decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) sets up a potential clash between European authorities and the right-wing Polish government, which has been accused of subverting the rule of law with a bid to pack Supreme Court with sympathetic judges.

The Polish government had no immediate reaction to the ruling. But Polish officials have earlier suggested they might defy the ECJ’s will if the court sought to intervene in what the government sees as a purely domestic matter.

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The decision was the latest twist in a drama that has gripped Poland — and troubled Europe — for more than a year. It is likely to escalate debate over whether the country, and its ally Hungary, are fundamentally out of step with European values.

Critics of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party regard implementation of the retirement law as the last major step in a calculated plan by the government to commandeer the nation’s judicial system. Other elements of the system — including the Constitutional Tribunal and the National Council of the Judiciary — have already fallen under the ruling party’s sway.

Under the law, which went into force in July, 28 Supreme Court justices — including the chief justice — were forced from the bench because they had hit the new mandatory retirement age of 65. Five had since been reinstated by Poland’s president.

Friday’s decision is a temporary one, with the ECJ yet to rule on whether Poland’s change to the retirement age violates European law.

But the ruling requires Poland’s government to freeze a process that had been moving quickly ahead, as authorities rushed in recent weeks to appoint new judges after little apparent vetting. Failure to abide by the ruling and halt the process could subject Poland to hefty fines.

In announcing the decision, the ECJ warned of possible “serious and irreparable damage” if the retirement-age law was implemented without a full legal review by the court.

In addition to pushing for the retirements, Poland is expanding its Supreme Court from 93 judges to 120. Combined, the two moves amount to “a profound and immediate change in the composition of the Supreme Court,” the ECJ said in its announcement.

The ruling came in response to a petition by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm and a top critic of Polish government moves that it regards as a betrayal of democratic values. The commission last December triggered what are known as Article 7 proceedings against Poland, a process that could end with the loss of the country’s voting rights in meetings of European leaders.

The ruling was welcomed by Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal faction in the European Parliament, who called it “an important step.”

“The Polish Government crossed a red line by attempting to politicize Poland’s Supreme Court,” Verhofstadt said in a statement. “I am confident that the Polish government will abide by this order and allow judges forced into retirement to resume their work. We can only preserve the integrity of E.U. legal order if all member states fully abide by ECJ decisions and rulings.”

Quentin Aries in Brussels and Magdalena Foremska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON POST

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