The judge with an institutional mountain to climb

Chief Justice Juan Antonio Xiol Ríos replaces disgraced Carlos Dívar as head of Spain’s Supreme Court

Juan Antonio Xiol Rios, who replaces Carlos Dívar as chief justice.
Juan Antonio Xiol Rios, who replaces Carlos Dívar as chief justice.VÍCTOR LERENA (EFE)

Juan Antonio Xiol Ríos, the head of the Supreme Court's civil panel, became the new chief justice on Thursday following the historic resignation of Carlos Dívar, who stepped down under pressure for charging 32 weekend jaunts to the judiciary's coffers. Xiol is considered one of the most prestigious members of the Spanish bench, and is well known for his illustrative flare in presenting arguments and rulings.

Xiol is now at the zenith of his legal career, which began in 1972. He had previously served in different second-tier government positions, such as judicial branch commissioner and director general of the executive's judicial liaison office under Prime Minister Felipe González.

His high profile as an expert in legal technical language went hand-in-hand with the Supreme Court's more political justices, such as Fernando Ledesma and Pascual Sala. But he became known in his own right after he was appointed to head the top court's civil bench.

In the mid-1980s, when he served as secretary general of the Constitutional Court, Xiol met with a delegation of reporters who complained because they could never obtain photocopies of the court's rulings. After listening to their gripes, Xiol told the reporters that he had no problem in providing every news outlet with one photocopy.

"The only question I have is: who will be paying for these copies?" he asked. "Payments for copies are not included in the judiciary's budget, and if we pay for them, it would cause a budget imbalance."

The diabolical legalese used by Xiol was applauded by his colleagues

The reporters thought their world had opened up. "If it is a question of payment, then of course our editors will be glad to pay for the copies," they told him.

"Well, let me think about it," Xiol responded, "because if we allow the media to pay for the copies we might be imposing an illegal tax."

Between the explanations on budget imbalances and illegal taxes, the reporters went away knowing that they had been duped. This type of diabolical legalese often used by Xiol was always applauded by his bench colleagues, even though journalists saw that it was another attempt by the judiciary to obstruct the flow of information and maintain the lack of transparency.

Of course, the situation remained the same until a new secretary general took over a short time afterward and agreed to give reporters all the rulings if they just sent over a motorcycle delivery service to pick them up.

Even though nearly three decades have passed, Xiol continues to occasionally be uncooperative in some ways with the press, but the situation has radically changed. Since he was appointed chief justice of the civil bench, he has made it a point to ensure that all rulings, along with press releases describing them, are sent to the media. His bench is the only one in the Supreme Court that follows this practice, an important function because his panel is where all the show business lawsuits, copyright infringement conflicts, and a multitude of other newsworthy legal battles wind up.

Calm, discreet and camera shy, Xiol has faced difficult times during his career

In essence, Xiol is a journalist's goldmine - not because reporters have affection for him but because they have the ability to turn a situation around and gain his respect.

A member of the Supreme Court's litigious panel since 1996, Xiol was selected by his colleagues to write the dissenting opinion of the liberal justices over the legalization of Sortu and Bildu.

In the Sortu ruling, Xiol explained that his vote in favor was based on the fact that the Constitutional Court had said that the group had no prior illegalization orders issued against it, and that the government had sufficient resources to ban a party if it failed to play by the democratic rules.

In an irony of his own destiny, Xiol will replace Dívar, whose votes tipped the balance in the Supreme Court decision to ban Sortu.

Among his pastimes are listening to classical music, hiking and mountain climbing. "He has gone up the Teide once or twice - walking, not using the funicular which was invented for the rest of us," said one bench colleague.

Despite being calm, discreet and camera shy, Xiol has had to face difficult situations during his career. One of the more bitter moments in Xiol's trajectory occurred during a constitutional confrontation between the executive and the judiciary in the mid-1980s. A Bilbao judge subpoenaed 90 Civil Guard officers for a lineup in an alleged ETA torture case, but the government of then-Prime Minister Felipe González stepped in and refused to allow the officers to appear. Justice Minister Fernando Ledesma ordered Xiol, who was the government's liaison with the judiciary, to appear before cameras to offer an explanation.

Xiol explained that the refusal to make the Civil Guards appear was to protect their rights to personal integrity but he denied it was an incursion on justice by the executive. He also said that the judge's subpoena was illegal.

Soon after, legal associations across the country called the government's action "intolerable." The group Judges for Democracy demanded Xiol's resignation.

As chief justice of the civil bench, Xiol has pushed for advances in family law and honor rights, such as recently advocating the identification of a sex offender at trial because it is in the interest of the community.

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