The Court of Justice to the rescue? Some thoughts on the ECJ ruling in Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses

Laurent Pech, Professor of European Law, Middlesex University London

Sébastien Platon, Professor of Public Law, University of Bordeaux


ECJ’s judgment in the case of Associação
Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses
(Case C-64/16) is noteworthy for two
reasons. First, it is arguably the most important judgment since Les
 as regards the principle
of the rule of law in the EU legal system. Secondly, it comes close to being the
EU equivalent of the US Supreme Court case of Gitlow
as regards the principle of effective judicial protection (Gitlow led to the progressive application of the US federal Bill of
Rights to all state norms even when the states act within their own sphere of
competence: see AG Sharpston here
for a brief account).

respect to the rule of law, in a couple of inspired and inspiring paragraphs,
the Court offers a neat digest of the essential functions and features of this fundamental
value in the EU’s legal framework. One of the most innovative and welcome
aspects of this judgment is its conclusion on a combined reading of Article 2 TEU
(values on which EU is based and common to its Member States), Article 4(3) TEU
(principle of sincere cooperation) and Article 19(1) TEU (principle of
effective judicial protection of individuals’ rights under EU law):

very existence of effective judicial review designed to ensure compliance with
EU law is of the essence of the rule of law … It follows that every Member
State must ensure that the bodies which, as ‘courts or tribunals’ within the
meaning of EU law, come within its judicial system in the fields covered by
that law, meet the requirements of effective judicial protection. … In order
for that protection to be ensured, maintaining [a national] court or tribunal’s
independence is essential.

Court’s ruling in Case C-64/16 may be understood as the Court’s answer to the worrying
process of ‘rule of law
’ first witnessed in Hungary and
now being seen in Poland.
This judgment essentially establishes a general obligation for Member States to
guarantee and respect the independence of their national courts and tribunals. What
is particularly noteworthy is that the Court has done this solely based on Article 19(1) TEU read in light of Article 2 and
Article 4(3) TEU. This reasoning should hopefully lead the Polish government to
stop repeating the ludicrous
that it can introduce whatever judicial ‘reforms’ it sees fit as the organisation
of national judiciaries falls outside EU competence. (In any event, the Irish
courts have just decided to ask
the ECJ
whether European Arrest Warrants issued by Poland must be executed,
in light of rule of law concerns; see also this review of the recent
ECJ case law
on EAWs and human rights).
examining how this judgment may prove to be a potentially decisive shot across
the Polish bows as first noted here
by Michal Ovádek (section 4), the facts and outcome of this case will be
briefly presented (section 2). This post will also seek to tackle the most challenging
‘technical’ issue raised by this case: when can one challenge a national
measure under Article 19(1) TEU, now considered a self-standing provision? It
will be submitted that the Court’s approach, which is centred on the notion of
‘fields covered by EU law’ and merely requires the existence of a virtual link
between relevant national measures and EU law, is ground-breaking yet compelling
(section 3).

2. Facts and outcome

2014, the Portuguese legislature introduced a temporary reduction in the
remuneration paid to the persons working in the Portuguese public
administration, including judges. The Associação Sindical dos Juízes
Portugueses (ASJP), acting on behalf of members of the Tribunal de Contas
(Court of Auditors), decided to challenge the salary-reduction measures on the
main ground that that they would infringe ‘the principle of judicial
independence’ enshrined, not only in the Portuguese Constitution, but also in
EU law, in the second subparagraph of Article 19(1) TEU (‘Member States shall
provide remedies sufficient to ensure effective legal protection in the fields
covered by Union law’) and Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
(Right to an effective remedy and to a fair trial). This issue was then
subsequently referred by the Portuguese Supreme Administrative Court to the ECJ
for a preliminary ruling.

is particularly noteworthy is that the ECJ focused exclusively on Article 19(1)
TEU, which the Court described as giving ‘concrete expression to the value of
the rule of law stated in Article 2 TEU’ having previously recalled that mutual
trust between national courts ‘is based on the fundamental premiss that Member
States share a set of common values on which the European Union is founded’. On
the basis of a combined and powerful reading of Articles 2, 4(3) and 19(1) TEU,
the Court underlines, more than ever before, the duties of national courts
under the EU Treaties and in particular, their duty to ensure ‘that in the
interpretation and application of the Treaties the law is observed’ while
repeatedly observing that in order for the EU legal system to operate efficiently
and for individuals to continue to benefit from the principle of the effective
judicial protection of their EU rights, it is essential that national courts
remain independent.

the outcome of the case itself is not surprising, it is the Court’s approach
which is particularly noteworthy. Before concluding that the ‘salary-reduction
measures at issue in the main proceedings cannot be considered to impair the
independence of the members of the Tribunal de Contas’, the Court referred to a
number of criteria which must guide national courts should they have to review
measures which are alleged to infringe judicial independence: Are the measures
specific to judges? Are the measures justified by an overriding reason of
public interest? Can they be considered to weaken their independence?

the present case and on the basis of these criteria, the Court convincingly concluded
that ‘the second subparagraph of Article 19(1) TEU must be interpreted as
meaning that the principle of judicial independence does not preclude general
salary-reduction measures, such as those at issue in the main proceedings,
linked to requirements to eliminate an excessive budget deficit and to an EU
financial assistance programme, from being applied to the members of the Tribunal
de Contas’.

3. Scope of Application of the
EU Principle of Judicial Independence

principle that national courts must be independent is not new in EU Law (see
for instance Article
of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights ‘CFR’ hereinafter). What makes the
Court’ ruling in this case particularly significant is the way the Court
exclusively relies on Article 19(1) TEU having emphasised early on in its
judgment that this provision may be relied upon in national situations irrespective
of whether the Member States are implementing EU law within the meaning of
Article 51(1) CFR.

is a welcome but nonetheless ground-breaking interpretation. In a nutshell,
this interpretation of Article 19(1) TEU gives the principle of effective
judicial protection a much wider scope of application that it would have on the
basis of Article 47 CFR which is subject to Article 51(1) CFR. Article 19(1)
TEU (added to the EU Treaties via the Lisbon Treaty) may therefore be
‘triggered’ in a much broader set of national situations than Article 47 CFR
and in areas where there is very little to no EU acquis.

may be worth briefly recalling at this stage that EU Law cannot be relied upon
in every national legal procedure. For instance, in ‘purely internal situations’,
where no links with EU law can be established, the ECJ lacks jurisdiction. The
scope of application of the EU Charter is similarly limited by its Article 51(1).
While the ECJ did adopt
a broad interpretation
of the notion of ‘implementation’ of EU law by
Member States, the Court has also established that where ‘a legal situation
does not come within the scope of European Union law, the Court does not have
jurisdiction to rule on it and any provisions of the Charter relied upon
cannot, of themselves, form the basis for such jurisdiction’ (C-617/10, para
issue of whether the salary reductions of the Portuguese judges constitutes a
purely internal situation is therefore key. As there is no EU rule governing
the remuneration of national judges, one may have concluded that the ECJ lacked
jurisdiction in this case. The temporary reduction in the amount of public
sector remuneration was however based on mandatory requirements imposed on the
Portuguese Government by the EU to reduce the Portuguese State’s excessive
budget deficit in 2011 in order to receive financial assistance. To that extent
and as in the case of Florescu
(EU Charter applies to national measures adopted to meet the conditions
attached to the financial assistance granted by the EU to a Member State), one
could have retorted that the salary-reduction measures had to trigger the
application of EU Law.

the Court gone down that route, Article 47 CFR would have been available to
review the compatibility of these measures with EU law, including the principle
of judicial independence. Yet, the Court chose another route without much
explanation, or even no explanation at all, whereas the Article 47 CFR may also
have been applied in the present case. The fact that the Court relied exclusively
on Article 19(1) TEU to protect judicial independence at Member State level may
be understood as an implicit answer to the increasing and sustained attacks on
national courts by ruling parties in countries such as Poland (see section 4). By
exclusively relying on Article 19(1), the Court has enabled natural and legal
persons to challenge a broader set of national measures. Indeed, the notion of
‘fields covered by Union law’ mentioned in Article 19(1) is broadly interpreted
by the Court and should now be understood as being wider than the notion of
‘implementation’ laid down in Article 51(1) CFR.

Court has gone therefore beyond the limited functional necessity of national
remedies sufficient to ensure the application of EU law and now requires that
Member States guarantee and respect the fundamental requirements of justice as
defined by EU law and the ECJ itself, failing which they can be sued directly
on the basis of Article 19(1) TEU. To give an example, Member States must
ensure that national courts can exercise their ‘judicial functions wholly
autonomously, without being subject to any hierarchical constraint or
subordinated to any other body and without taking orders or instructions from
any source whatsoever’. Any national measures which infringes this standard may
now be found incompatible with the principle of judicial independence on the
sole basis of Article 19(1).

is yet to be determined is how much broader is the scope of Article 19(1) TEU comparison to the scope of Article 47 CFR. In other words, how
should the notion of fields covered by EU Law be understood compared to the
notion of situations covered by EU Law (Fransson)?
the very least, the present ruling now makes it possible for national litigants
to rely on the principle of judicial independence in situations where the Charter
may not be applicable by relying on Article 19 TEU. This new approach means for
example that in cases such as Torralbo
the ECJ would now probably accept jurisdiction to review whether
national measures are compatible with the principle of effective judicial

would further argue that the Court’s present ruling must be understood as
making Article 19(1) TEU a relevant standard for reviewing national measures irrespective of whether the situation is
connected or not with EU law. Article 19(1) TEU may from now on be relied upon
to challenge any national measure which may undermine the independence of any
national court which may hear ‘questions concerning the application or
interpretation of EU law’ (para. 40). The key ‘test’ is therefore whether the
relevant national court has jurisdiction (or not) over potential questions of EU law. If this understanding is correct,
the Court’s approach may be viewed as ground-breaking as most if not all national courts are, at least theoretically, in
this situation.

establishing a general obligation for Member States to guarantee and protect
judicial independence on the basis of a combined reading of Articles 2, 4(3)
and 19(1) TEU, irrespective of whether the situation falls within the scope of
EU law, the Court’s ruling is reminiscent of the 1925 US judgment of Gitlow v
New York
, in which the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment
to the US Constitution had extended the reach of certain limitations on federal
government authority set forth in the First Amendment to the governments of the
individual states. In the present case, one may argue that the ECJ has essentially
made the EU principle of effective judicial protection (including the principle
of judicial independence) a federal standard of review which may be relied upon
before national courts in virtually any situation where national measures target
national judges who may hear actions based on EU law.

4. A decisive shot across the
Polish bows?

ECJ, by making Article 19(1) a stand-alone provision, has drastically increased
the number of situations where litigants (for instance, a trade union
representing judges) may challenge national measures which undermine judicial
independence. In doing so, the Court has answered the appeal from some scholars
to ‘operationalise’ Article 2 TEU by connecting it to other provisions of the
TEU such as Article 4(3) and Article 19(1) TEU. In 2016, building up on the
scholarship of Professor Scheppele, Professor Kochenov and one of the present
authors argued for instance for the combined use of these Treaty provisions so
to enable the review of national breaches of the rule of law happening beyond
the areas covered by the EU’s acquis:

here is however no legal obstacle preventing the Commission from using the
infringement procedure to simultaneously investigate a set of diffuse and/or
cumulative breaches of EU values in conjunction with EU principles such as the
duty of loyalty, which is enshrined in Article 4(3) TEU … or the requirement
that Member States ‘shall provide remedies sufficient to ensure effective legal
protection in the fields covered by Union law’ (Article 19(1) TFEU). Article
258 TFEU does indeed speak of the necessity to ensure that the Member States
fulfil any ‘obligation under the Treaties’. This also means that there is no
legal hurdle preventing the Commission from bundling numerous apparently minor
violations to demonstrate a pattern which itself could amount to a breach of
Article 2 TEU.

establishing, on the basis of Articles 2, 4(3) and 19(1) TEU, that Member
States must ensure that their national courts meet ‘the requirements essential
to effective judicial protection’, the Court has taken a most welcome stance on
the existential threat which Hungary and Poland’s descent into authoritarianism
poses for the EU’s interdependent and interconnected legal system. A number of
statements may be understood as subliminal warnings to would-be autocrats in
these two countries but also elsewhere:

guarantee of independence, which is inherent in the task of adjudication … is
required not only at EU level as regards the Judges of the Union and the
Advocates-General of the Court of Justice … but also at the level of the Member
States as regards national courts’;

concept of independence presupposes, in particular, that the body concerned
exercises its judicial functions wholly autonomously, without being subject to
any hierarchical constraint or subordinated to any other body and without
taking orders or instructions from any source whatsoever …’;

the protection against removal from office of the members of the body concerned
… the receipt by those members of a level of remuneration commensurate with the
importance of the functions they carry out constitutes a guarantee essential to
judicial independence’.

more significant are the standards used by the Court when reviewing the
disputed measures. For the Court, the salary-reduction measures do not infringe
the EU principle of judicial independence because they were a limited and
temporary reduction of remuneration to help lower ‘the Portuguese State’s
excessive budget deficit’ and applied to various categories of public sector
employees. The disputed measures could not therefore ‘be perceived as being specifically adopted (our emphasis) in
respect of the members’ of the Portuguese Court of Auditors. This suggests, a contrario, that national measures
which are (i) not justified by overriding reasons of public interest; (ii) are
permanent and general in nature; and (iii) specifically target the judiciary or
specific courts (e.g. a Supreme Court) could be considered by the ECJ ‘to
impair the independence’ of relevant courts and their members and as such be
held incompatible with the second subparagraph of Article 19(1) TEU.

National judges should aim (via trade unions preferably to avoid retaliatory
measures) to systematically challenge the compatibility of any national measure
which affects their independence via new rules amending their status, terms of
office, etc., on the basis of Article 19(1) TEU as interpreted in Case C-64/16;

To systematically request from national courts that they refer questions to the
Court of Justice to enable it to rule on whether the national measures at issue
in each case can be consider the impair the independence of the members of the
relevant national court(s);

‘Friends of the rule of law’ should also aim to lodge
with the European Commission to ask it to investigate infringements
of Article 19(1) TEU;

With respect to countries where the national judiciary may already be captured
in whole or in part by the ruling party, which may result in requests for
preliminary rulings being systematically denied even at the level of courts of
last resort and/or national judgments offering interpretations of EU law in bad
faith, the Commission should systematically initiate infringement actions (Case
C-154/08 is noteworthy in this respect).

institutions and key actors must wake up to the existential dangers raised by
increasing rule
of law backsliding
within the EU. Following this welcome development in
Luxembourg, it is to be hoped that the Commission will stop hesitating about
whether to rely on Article 19(1) TEU in its infringement actions (see this
by Professor Taborowski for a critique of the Commission’s moving and
excessively cautious legal position in the context of the pending infringement
case against the Polish law on the organisation of ordinary courts). One may
only hope also that the Commission will aim to think more strategically about
rule of law backsliding. It was disappointing in this respect to see the
Commission raising the inadmissibility of the request for a preliminary ruling
in the present case or failing to initially think of requesting from the Court
the imposition
of a penalty payment
in the Białowieża Forest infringement case when the
Polish government so defiantly refused to comply with a previous order of the

time for dialogue has past. The time for action (and sanction) is now.

credit : IPI

& Peers : chapter 9, chapter 10

Source link

Related posts

Leave a Comment