Reuters International

People hold giant Polish national flag as they take part in a march demanding their government to respect the country's constitution in front of the Constitutional Court in Warsaw, Poland, March 12, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

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By Wiktor Szary

WARSAW (Reuters) - The Polish government faces a growing rebellion among judges and local authorities over its reform of the constitutional court, in a row that could lead to different state bodies following conflicting legal standards.

In recent days, several municipalities, including the city of Warsaw, and the Supreme Court have said they will recognise the rulings of the constitutional court even if the government refuses to do so.

The ruling conservatives, meanwhile, insist the constitutional court's verdicts are illegal until it complies with the reform, which includes new regulations increasing the majority required for the court to pass a ruling.

Critics say the changes are part of an authoritarian push by the conservatives to bring key institutions to heel.

The new rules have drawn international criticism, including from the European Union and some rating agencies, which say they undermine the state's credibility. The constitutional judges have themselves struck the proposed reforms down as illegal.

The latest body to throw its weight behind the constitutional court is the top administrative court, which said on Wednesday it was the government's duty to recognise rulings "without undue delay".

"Such statements reflect the disapproval (of the government) and its failure to uphold the constitution," said Jan Wawrzyniak, a constitutional law professor at a Warsaw university.

"What they can lead to is our legal system being split into two competing realities."

The Law and Justice party (PiS) argues its reform of the constitutional court is necessary to reflect a new balance of power in Poland after it won an October election. It is dismissive of talk of pending legal trouble.

"In reality, it's a team of cronies who got together to defend the previous government's status quo," PiS spokeswoman Beata Mazurek told reporters, referring to the Supreme Court's decision to defy the government.

POTENTIAL FOR TROUBLE

Municipalities such as Warsaw city council have said they will heed the constitutional court's rulings, in defiance of the government. Their critics say they are motivated by politics rather than concern for the rule of law.

The Warsaw council is dominated by officials linked to the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party which lost power in October after eight years in government.

Legal experts say the row could lead to legal tangles over taxes, land ownership, privacy and even driving licences, all of which are subject to pending cases on which the constitutional court could rule in coming months.

Land ownership, for example, could come into question if the court rules on a bill limiting the ability of individuals to buy farmland. PO officials have said they will challenge the bill in the constitutional court.

"If there is a verdict on this issue, we could have a situation where a person doesn't know if they have bought a piece of land or not," said Wawrzyniak.

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said such concerns were driven by a "lack of knowledge".

"It's fiction," he told the wSieci weekly.

A new law which allows police to confiscate driving licences for speeding offences is due to be reviewed by the constitutional court. If judges strike the law down, the government is likely to refuse to recognise their ruling.

This could result in police obeying the regulation, and taking licences away, and a local authority following the court ruling and returning them.

"People who are not given their licences back could sue the state," said Human Rights Commissioner Adam Bodnar, referring to people living in areas where conservative-leaning authorities would toe the government line.

"I am not sure the government understands the potential consequences of its behaviour."

Financial markets are becoming increasingly wary of the constitutional row, traders say.

A senior financial market source who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said that at a recent meeting with investors in London, Economy Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was faced with a barrage of questions on the constitutional crisis.

"Investors are worried that if the constitutional court stops working, (other) courts will stop working and they will not be able to get their money back," said the source.

(Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski and Anna Koper; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Andrew Roche)

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