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Prof. Andrzej Szmyt – constitutional lawyer and Sejm expert

Prof. Andrzej Szmyt – constitutional lawyer and Sejm expert

Faculty of Law and Administration
prof. Andrzej Szmyt 9669

Andrzej Szmyt (born 27 February 1950 in Elbląg) – Polish constitutional lawyer, professor of law, between 1996-2002 Dean of the Faculty of Law and Administration of the University of Gdańsk.

He graduated from Law at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń in 1972. Between 1972-1974 he completed his legal practice and became an assistant public prosecutor. He is a graduate of the Postgraduate Studium of Legislative Issues at the University of Warsaw (1976-1978). In 1983 he defended his doctoral dissertation entitled The Creation of a Legal Act in the Polish People’s Republic: Single Case Study (promotor Prof. Andrzej Gwiżdż). He received his PhD with habilitation in Juridical Sciences in 1993 on the basis of his academic achievements and a dissertation entitled The Making of Legal Acts in the Federal Republic of Germany: Procedural and Organisational Solutions in Constitutional Law. In 1994 he became a legislation expert at the Bureau of Studies and Expertise (currently the Sejm’s Bureau of Research) at the Chancellery of the Sejm.

Between 1992-2005 he was Local Government’s Citizen Advocate at the City of Gdynia Council. Between 1993-1996 he was Vice-Dean and later Dean of the UG’s Faculty of Law and Administration (1996-2002). He is Head of the Department of Constitutional Law and Political Institutions at the Faculty. For 23 years, until recently, he had been a member of the Editorial Committee of the bi-monthly Przegląd Sejmowy (Sejm Review) published by the Chancellery of the Polish Sejm. He is Editor-in-Chief of the periodical Gdańskie Studia Prawnicze (Gdańsk Law Studies). Between 2002-2006, he held the position of President of the Polish Constitutional Law Society. On 19 February 2014 he received the title of Professor of Juridical Sciences. He is author of several hundred publications. Since 2011 member of the Committee of Juridical Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Privately, he has been married for 44 years, is the father of two daughters (also lawyers) and grandfather of two grandchildren. As he says himself, he is an art enthusiast, especially of painting and monuments. 



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Let’s begin with a bit of history, Professor. Apart from the first two years, your entire professional life has been linked to the University of Gdańsk, gradually climbing the subsequent steps in your academic career. I wanted to return to the year 1996. In a ceremony held on 14 October, as the new Dean, you laid the foundation stone for the new building of the Faculty of Law and Administration. The building finally came into operation at the end of your second term in office. Those must have been difficult times…

If you go back to these years, then indeed, the construction process of the Faculty of Law took a full six years. And the dates you have mentioned, 1996 – 2002, show how much time elapsed from the emergence of the Faculty of Law in 1970 when we did not have our own building. When we talk about the construction process itself, then the thanks and credits must, chronologically, go to the rector at the time, Prof. Zbigniew Grzonka and the Dean of the Faculty of Law who served before me, Prof. Andrzej Pułło. It was their efforts at the Ministry which led to ministerial permission for the construction of the Faculty of Law and a number of promises (not always kept) to finance the building. And it was back then, in August 1996, that we met during the signing ceremony of the agreement connected with the start of the construction. The 14 October date you mentioned was already my term in office and indeed the laying of the foundation stone. The construction really took nearly six years, although it had been planned for more or less two years, mainly for financial reasons. In the past system there was money to go round but no machinery, papers or people, while in the new system it turned out that everything was dependent on money, which very quickly proved scarce, despite written ministerial promises. This is when the trouble started. It needed a great deal of effort, both at the ministerial and university levels in order to collect the necessary funds, but such fast-paced construction was not possible. By account balance, taking all the pluses and minuses into consideration, it did of course pay off to erect this building, although with it being drawn-out in time, it did in fact cost a bit more than its original estimates, but there really was not much of a choice. The late Marshal Maciej Płażyński, a graduate of ours, a fact which should also be remembered, did help enormously on a number of occasions in obtaining additional funds or enforcing the promised money.  Apart from that, one third of the cost was covered by the university itself, of which there was no mention initially, although the money, let’s call it ‘university money’, had been generated by the Faculty of Law itself and assigned towards the construction of the building. The Faculty’s official opening ceremony did indeed take place in 2002 although we had been slowly and gradually moving for a year or a year and a half before that. The very first of the important events to take place here, although at the time the building was still rather unfinished, was the ceremony to award an honorary doctorate to the United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, held in the Great Auditorium.

Let us take a moment to recall the bizarre former seat of the Faculty i.e. Sopot at ul. 1 Maja.

Yes, as a department we were scattered between a few buildings in Sopot, with classes being held mainly at the buildings of the economic faculties i.e. the present Faculty of Economics and the Faculty of Management.

Professor, you combine theory with active practice. I particularly have in mind the years 1992 – 2005, when you held the function of Local Government’s Citizen Advocate at the City of Gdynia Council. For 22 years you have also been a legislation expert at the Sejm’s Bureau of Research. What have these experiences been like? 

In short, important and interesting, though extremely varied. Those years as the Citizen Advocate at the City of Gdynia Council provided me with contact with citizens. Direct contact with the apparatus of power was also important, but of secondary importance. Most of all it was about conversations and sorting out the issues of those citizens who came to me hoping to get help. You could say that these were kind of sad years because citizens do not come to you to brag about their successes and celebrate achieving something but they only come with troubles. And very often it turned out that, despite what they thought, they were totally wrong and you could not sort out their problems the way they wished. But at times it worked. It was a very unpleasant experience for me to discover after some time that the intentions of those who came to me were not always honest. The office functioned for a number of years until the Polish Ombudsman, as a state organ based in Warsaw, opened his local office for Northern Poland in Gdańsk. And then as soon as three voivodeships had close physical contact with the local representative of the Ombudsman as a state organ, there was no need any more to continue this local governmental experiment, because it was unique in the country to have an office of an ombudsman at the municipal level (for a city with county rights such as Gdynia).  

That was one experience. But the other experience which you recalled i.e. that of me as an expert at the Sejm is completely different. My role there is mostly to maintain contact with politicians, because MPs are first and foremost politicians, be it of greater or lesser rank. And the role of the expert is to answer difficult questions, asked from different sides − the ruling majority, the opposition, the Marshal and the Presidium of the Sejm, Sejm commissions or particular MPs. I get a question and have to give an answer in line with the law and reason. I have the satisfaction of having worked there for many years now and possessing, I think, great experience in the field, also professionally enriching because in my position I deal with various aspects of the legal system and constitutional problems. But my role is only to prepare the most professional opinion. What happens later, whether it is used or not, I have no influence over any more, it depends on politicians or MPs.

I am convinced that this also translates into your theoretical work. You are the author of several hundred publications and this is probably reflected there.

Yes, it is, and to a degree greater than could be expected. It is natural in the academic world to have favourite areas one deals with, branches or subjects which one specialises in. If there is no additional external stimulus present, then with years we become more and more rooted in it. But if you have a job, as in my case that of an expert with the Sejm’s Chancellery’s  Bureau of Research, then it becomes a constant source of totally new inspiration on which you need to concentrate to provide a relatively quick answer.  This really does translate into purely academic effects. It happens that nearly 100% of my expert opinions which are prepared mainly for the purposes of the Sejm is later published somewhere in some form. 

Speaking of your long-term work in the Chancellery of the Sejm and also, given the moment, of the current conflict around the Constitutional Tribunal – every day there are many people, so-called constitutional experts, presenting their opinion in the media.  Are they really such experts? How many constitutional experts are there in Poland, Professor?

If you wanted to be particularly sarcastic, as a joke you may say that if some citizen heard of a constitution, then they have a knowledge about the constitution and could call himself a constitutional lawyer. This is of course a joke and it’s not what this is all about. In the general opinion, a constitutional lawyer is in fact someone who is a kind of expert in constitutional matters. He or she possesses a much greater than average knowledge on the constitution and deals with the constitution more than anything else. But this is not precise enough. Because you may be a constitutional lawyer, say, a political scientist who could analyse the most general international and constitutional mechanisms and look into what things generally look like in our constitution. One may also say that a constitutional expert is a lawyer at least, because a constitution is a normative act. Therefore the most basic difference as part of elementary honesty should lie in the fact that you should say: constitutional expert and political scientist or constitutional expert and lawyer. And even then, within the legal profession, constitutional lawyers constitute only a small group because there are other branches of the law and other legal domains. On an everyday basis, a constitutional lawyer will most likely be professionally employed in the Department of Constitutional Law, and as a result will, for at least a dozen years or a few decades, deal with this branch of law, write a PhD on the subject, then a habilitation, and then receive the title of Professor, so he really is highly specialised. So not everyone who speaks on matters of the constitution is a constitutional expert. But you asked me: How many of them are there? The answer seems easy to find, at least for me, as a professor who has been functioning for x-number of years within the departments of constitutional law. In my opinion there are about thirty or thirty-five titular professors with habilitation specialising in constitutional law, including about ten professors emeriti, which does not mean academically inactive, but already retired. This is where titular professors are concerned. When it comes to younger but senior academic staff, i.e. doctors with habilitation, then there are, to my knowledge, about 55 – 60 people. Let’s say – twice as many. And to be precise, you may add that at the level below, among doctors of law, there are a few dozen constitutional lawyers. And then there are those who are only just developing and are at the beginning of their path. So you may say that there are no more than 90 senior academic staff specialising in constitutional law.

So no more than a hundred. And finally, Professor, when you put all those wise books aside, and when it’s Friday afternoon, how do you spend your time, and who with, when you are free of your professional duties?

For me, the true support and basis for everything is family. When I talk to people, I always say that you cannot put professional work before family life, and that you should at least try to keep a balance. When it comes to my family, my grandchildren brighten up my day. The feeling of grandparents towards their grandchildren is totally different than that towards your siblings, parents, or even children. But if I were to look outside my family, then I love devoting myself to contemplating art, especially painting. But I also like to visit the old towns in any cities I go to. Wherever I am, no matter in which city, I always ask if they have an old town, or I just know it myself and enjoy walking in these areas most of all.

I’m curious which old town you have remembered the most or which has had the greatest impression on you?

So far I have been impressed the most by the very centre of Regensburg but also by Bamberg. Bamberg is a quaint medieval town with a beautiful old town, and it is pure pleasure to walk such streets. But in Poland we also have Cracow or the lesser old town in Warsaw. Our old town in Gdańsk, with Długa or Mariacka streets, is also beautiful.

Thank you for the conversation, Professor.

Gdańsk, 18 March 2016  

Interview: Dr Tadeusz Zaleski
Photographs: Piotr Pędziszewski


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