June 19, 2013 3:23 am

Blow to Fernández over judiciary plan

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Argentina’s Supreme Court dealt a blow to the government of Cristina Fernández and her plans to “democratise” the judiciary by ruling unconstitutional a new law that allows direct election of members of a council who nominate and fire judges.

The law, which has been stoutly defended by a government that believes the judiciary should be in line with the popular will, would have required people voting in party primaries in August to elect members of the Magistrates’ Council.

“Until [this ruling] we could have become Venezuela very quickly,” said Alejandro Fargosi, a member of the council, expressing relief at a ruling that had been widely expected. “This is the only decision the court could have taken.”

But Juan Manuel Abal Medina, the cabinet chief, said “our democracy requires the participation of the people in all the essential powers of the state, especially in the judiciary” and that the judges’ reasoning in the 6-1 vote was “weak”.

“Anyone who doesn’t understand this is clearly afraid of the popular vote, of the will of the people,” he added.

Critics said direct election of Magistrates’ Council members would have politicised the judiciary since candidates would have had to appear on party ballot papers.

Argentina holds midterm elections in October, which will be pivotal to Ms Fernández’s future. Though she has said she is not planning constitutional changes and is not expected to get the two-thirds majority needed to seek a change to the constitution, politicians, commentators and business leaders believe she is still hoping to overcome a ban on seeking a third consecutive term in the 2015 elections.

Ms Fernández has clashed repeatedly with the judiciary, especially over a government-backed media law, and wastes no opportunity to lambast judges she considers to be at the beck and call of powerful media and business lobbies.

Shortly before the Supreme Court’s ruling, she was tweeting about another court ruling, which she said favoured the powerful farm lobby. “You see what we’re talking about when we talk about democratising justice,” she said.

The president has also blasted the court’s oldest member, 95-year-old Carlos Fayt, on grounds of age, and some commentators believe the government would now seek to remove some of the court’s members.

Ironically, the government hails a 2003 overhaul of the Supreme Court fostered by Ms Fernández’s late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, as one of the highlights of their 10-year rule and had been proud of having an independent, prestigious tribunal after a Supreme Court in the 1990s that was seen as under the government’s thumb.

Julio Alak, the justice minister, said the government would “respect the ruling, even though we don’t agree with it”. However, he added: “The judiciary does not belong to judges or lawyers, it belongs to the people. And the people, sooner or later, will elect the members of the Magistrates’ Council.”

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