Argentina’s judicial, executive and legislative branches are in open conflict after a remarkable week of power plays, key rulings and political reshufflings.
Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Supreme Court and the reform of a key judicial body dating back to 2006, when she served as president, were the sources of the hostility. With the crisis still rolling on, on Friday morning, Government Spokesperson Gabriela Cerruti openly admitted to reporters that Argentina is facing a clear "conflict of powers," as she accused the Supreme Court for good measure of "attempting to become a political power" of its own. She said President Alberto Fernández is closely observing the crisis.
Week of tensions
A week of tensions erupted on Monday afternoon when the Supreme Court ordered the Council of Magistrates, the judicial body in charge of hiring and firing judges, to be up and running with its new members, citing the deadline set by the December 16 ruling declaring a 13-member Council unconstitutional expired. The move theoretically restored the chamber to its original 1998 strength of 20, bypassing the 2006 reform that was declared unconstitutional.
Underlining the dramatic response to the move, Fernández de Kirchner was by Thursday reigniting a previous plan of hers launching a drive to pack the Supreme Court up to nine justices. This itself came after she pulled off a surprise move on Tuesday night, splitting her own Senate Frente de Todos caucus in order to lay claim to another councillor via thus creating a second minority.
The opposition, who already have a Radical senator on the Council of Magistrates, were trying to nail a second seat on behalf of the PRO wing of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition in the person of Córdoba’s Luis Juez. Its immediate reaction was to call the vice-presidential manoeuvre “disgraceful” although the move won government support with Cabinet Chief Juan Manzur describing the move “within the legal parameters.”
Fernández de Kirchner was ending her defiance of the Supreme Court ruling – but only on her own terms.
The reactions kept on coming. Indignant opposition leaders including PRO party chair Patricia Bullrich blasted: “Pathetic, cowardly and sinister,” while Radical veteran Luis Brandoni asked: “Where is the political power of the government and Kirchnerism if they keep going from bad to worse?”
Mario Negri, who heads Juntos por el Cambio in the lower house, predicted similar tactics for the Chamber of Deputies but on Wednesday Congress Speaker Sergio Massa followed a more conventional procedure,confirming the opposition choice of Roxana Reyes (Radical-Santa Cruz) to represent the lower house.
“The only plan of Cristina Kirchner is to control justice, she just wants her impunity,” raged Negri nevertheless.
Opposition leaders believe that the new make-up of the Council of Magistrates council will prevent the Executive from removing judges it dislikes or frustrating the appointment of opposition candidates. Fernández de Kirchner, who claims she is a victim of "judicial and political persecution," faces several corruption cases against her in the courts.
The government already has two senatorial representatives on the Council, María Pilatti de Vergara (Chaco) and Mariano Recalde (Capital Federal). The former has joined the 21-strong Frente Nacional y Popular caucus mostly responding to provincial governors and now headed by erstwhile Senate Majority Leader José Mayans, while the latter was one of the 14 senators in Unidad Ciudadana, mostly consisting of ultra-Kirchnerites under Juliana Di Tullio (Buenos Aires Province), but was forced to switch to the other caucus after the veep’s choice fell on Río Negro’s Martín Doñate, also of Unidad Ciudana, which would thus have given the minority caucus majority representation.
Reason for ruling
The decision to go ahead immediately with the revamped Council of Magistrates was endorsed on Monday by Supreme Court Chief Justice Horacio Rosatti (its new president) and his fellow-justices Carlos Rosenkrantz and Juan Carlos Maqueda, with only the signature of Ricardo Lorenzetti missing.
No reason for the latter’s abstention was offered but last December he agreed that the current structure of the Council was unconstitutional, while arguing that it could not be replaced by the repealed law of 1998 as an elementary legal principle.
Argentina’s highest tribunal exhorted the Council to swear in the new councillors, bringing the judicial watchdog up to full strength. They were duly sworn in on Wednesday, minus the two disputed representatives from Congress.
The decision came after Paraná Federal Judge Daniel Alonso was asked to send the file of his previous ruling impugning the appointments of the Congress representatives, a decision which the Supreme Court promptly dismissed as "inadmissible"as it sought to delay, frustrate or paralyse the functions of a higher constitutional instance.
The Supreme Court was harsh in its ruling against Alonso. The justices reproached the Entre Ríos judge as being“flagrantly” out of line in overruling the country’s highest tribunal, “showing a grave ignorance of the superior authority with which this Court is institutionally invested.”
The ruling removed the last line of argument for Fernández de Kirchner and Massa against approving the appointment of the parliamentary councillors to complete the Council’s integration.
As from Monday Alberto Lugones was replaced at the helm of the Council by Rosatti while the other new members (all women in order to ensure gender balance) are lawyers Jimena de la Torre and María Fernanda Vázquez (respectively responding to the opposition and the government), Pamela Tolosa (representing academics) and Agustina Díaz Corderó (representing magistrates). On Wednesday all four women were duly sworn in.
Upon taking charge of the Council of Magistrates, Rosatti was immediately bombarded by various Kirchnerite leaders with Neuquén’s Oscar Parrilli (now in Unidad Ciudadana) denouncing: "He’s assaulting the Council of Magistrates Rambo style. It’s a clear institutional coup,” while comparing it to the 1930 coup.
Last December’s ruling ordering the Council to return to 20 members from 13 overturned a reform introduced in 2006 during the Néstor Kirchner presidency and personally drafted by his wife and successor. Kirchnerite critics consider that the Court’s decision to declare the 2006 reform unconstitutional was in itself unconstitutional and have accused Rosatti of having a hidden agenda of trying to save ex-president Mauricio Macri from all the judicial cases complicating him.
Justice Minister Martín Soria led the Kirchnerite onslaught.
"Handpicked by Macri, Rosatti voted himself in to head the [Supreme] Court and then dictated the ruling placing himself at the head of the organ appointing and removing judges. The interference of the Court in the prerogatives of other powers ties in with the opposition blockade of judicial reform bills. They’re not saving the Republic, they’re protecting the looters of Argentina and all their accomplices."
Graciana Peñafort, a lawyer close to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, echoed Parrilli’s definition of an "institutional coup," declaring: “They’re burning up the national Constitution in broad daylight. The [Supreme] Court wants to apply a law repealed by Congress. They cannot dictate this ruling, they can’t be judge and jury.”