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Justice à la carte

Judicial reforms being introduced by the government of Argentina undermine the separation of powers

The judicial reform currently being pushed through by the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner poses a genuine threat to the separation of powers in Argentina, given that it increases the executive branch’s control over the judiciary. This is clearly the case with the new composition of the Judicial Council, the body charged with the appointment and removal of judges. The council is to be enlarged from 13 to 19 members. Seven of these will be, as now, political representatives, appointed by Congress and the executive. The remainder — judges, lawyers and academics — will be raised from six to 12 in number, but will no longer be chosen by their respective professional associations, but by popular vote as part of the general elections. To this end they must be candidates on party slates, meaning that the winner in the elections will automatically control the Judicial Council.

Cristina Fernández is describing this clear attack on judicial independence as a “democratization of justice.” The planned limitation of the judicial measures that can be used to suspend government decisions is another such attack, given that it leaves the citizen defenseless in the face of abuses of power. These initiatives already have a target: the Clarín media group, which has so far been shielded by the courts against the government’s attempt to dismantle it.

These are the two most controversial measures in the package. So far the clamor against the reform has come to nothing, despite vehement criticism from professional associations of judges and lawyers, who have announced appeals on grounds of unconstitutionality; a strike by judicial civil servants; mass protest rallies; and condemnation from several human rights organizations. And not to mention a severe admonition from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, the Brazilian Gabriela Knaul, who warns that the reform compromises the separation of powers and effective legal protection.

In fact, it was never the government’s intention to seek consensus on measures of such a crucial nature. It seems more probable that Cristina Fernández has opted to follow the example of her counterparts in Venezuela and Bolivia, who have been bent on upsetting the balance between the branches of government.

It is very unlikely that this initiative will help to improve the president’s flagging popularity. What is certain is that it is going to further erode the international credibility of Argentina, already weakened, among other things, by the doctoring of economic statistical indicators, and the absence of legal security.

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