Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti has let rip at government pressures to expand the nation’s highest tribunal, asking for "consistency" over the issue and slamming the move as “judicial populism.”
The former chief justice, who had taken a back seat over the recent Council of Magistrates debate, was referring to the four Senate bills in the works that seek to overhaul the Supreme Court.
“In 2006 there was a law voted by the same senators [to give the court its present size],” Lorenzetti said in a closely observed interview. “You have to have a certain consistency. If we say one day that the Court should have five members, 10 the next day and then 15, we’re not being serious with the citizenry and we have to be to give them serenity, to have rules maintained over time.”
Since Elena Highton de Nolasco resigned as justice last November, there have only been four justices serving on the high court: Chief Justice Horacio Rosatti, Juan Carlos Maqueda, Horacio Rosenkrantz and Lorenzetti.
Despite rumours about a potential nomination, President Alberto Fernández has yet to propose a name to take up the vacant bench. In recent weeks, rumours of a sweeping judicial reform – an ambition the Peronist leader has repeatedly voiced– have again accelerated.
Lorenzetti recalled that when he became chief justice, there were two vacancies “so we asked Congress to pass a law to resolve the problem and this they did by gradually reducing Court numbers to five, the historic size since foundation,” he told Eduardo Feinmann on Radio Mitre.
Lorenzetti defended the Courts against charges of "an anti-Kirchnerite majority" which had taken the decision to declare the reformed structure of the Council of Magistrates unconstitutional.
“That’s not true and the proof is that there was recent talk of a Peronist majority. The Court is not and cannot be against any social or political sector. If we analyse the last 15 years, we’re going to find rulings which sometimes hurt one sector and sometimes another," he argued.
"The Supreme Court cannot engage in judicial populism by being in favour of any sector in any circumstantial moment. The Court has to rule according to the Constitution and laws and that is what gives it stability. A country is a boat which rocks but the Court is a mast which keeps it steady. there are no majorities in favour of or against any sector,” he explained.
Addressing the paralysis suffered by the Council of Magistrates and the dispute over the deputies and senators to sit on it, the justice underlined the administrative problems of the organism.
“A great many vacancies must be covered, almost 200 national and federal judicial benches, and urgently,” he manifested.
He further maintained that the Council of Magistrates "must sort out administrative flaws, for example, the eviction of a Morón courthouse was ordered because the rent had not been paid, elsewhere there are not buildings, the whole system needs changing and improving and fast because if not, the judicial branch will not function.”
Even though he abstained on the vote declaring the structure of the Council of Magistrates unconstitutional, he defended the ruling, recalling previous confrontations with the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency.
Until this week three Supreme Court reform bills had been filed in the Senate – by Neuquén’s Silvia Sapag proposing 15 justices, by former five-term San Luis governor Adolfo Rodríguez Saá proposing nine and by La Rioja’s Clara Vega keeping the number at five but not permitting any gender to have more than three.
On Monday Río Negro senator and former governor Alberto Weretilneck, a frequent ally of the Kirchnerite majority in the upper house, presented a bill to reform the Supreme Court raising the number of justices to 16 with gender equality and representation for regions across the country to ensure federalism.
A group of legal experts, headed by the lawyer José Manuel Ubeira, have been working on a similar bill with the approval of both President Alberto Fernández and Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
The proposal is seen as tacit recognition of the recent and ongoing confrontation with the top tribunal.
The future Court (adding 12 new justices to the current quartet) “should include at least three members from each region, either born there or with at least eight years’ residence.”
The initiative divides the country into five regions: Federal Capital, Buenos Aires Province, the North (Jujuy, Salta, Tucumán, Chaco, Formosa, Corrientes, Misiones and Santiago del Estero), the Centre (La Rioja, Catamarca, Mendoza, San Juan, San Luis, Córdoba, Santa Fe and Entre Ríos) and the South (Neuquén, La Pampa, Rio Negro, Chubut, Santa Cruz y Tierra del Fuego).
The top tribunal, according to the bill, will function in five courtrooms each consisting of three justices with the chief justice not being able to belong to any of them.
“The chief justice of the Court will be designated by the majority vote of the totality of magistrates forming it with a term running for one year. There can be no consecutive election for any one region.”
The chief justice currently serves a three-year term with indefinite re-election.