The discovery that the Popular Party placed one of its members, Francisco Pérez de los Cobos, as a member of the Constitutional Court in December 2010 — and who on June 19 was appointed chief judge of said court, is yet another blow to the credibility of Spain’s institutions, many of which are clearly run along party political lines. Nevertheless, Spanish society has the right to expect the body tasked with interpreting the country’s Constitution, and the legality of issues such as Catalonia’s bid for independence, labor reform, or abortion rights, to be impartial. This time, things have gone too far.
Pérez de los Cobos’ membership of the party currently in government was kept a secret for two-and-a-half years: until Thursday of this week, when EL PAÍS published the news, which had emerged during the interrogation of Luis Bárcenas, the former treasurer of the Popular Party. Pérez de los Cobos hid his membership of the PP during the session held in the Senate to vet the candidates for the Constitutional Court. To introduce himself to senators as a “humble university lecturer,” omitting to mention his party affiliation, is at best an inexplicable mental lapse; at worst an insult to the intelligence. The senators who interviewed him also failed to do their homework; but the final responsibility falls to Pérez de los Cobos, who knew all too well that membership of a political party was an issue.
Pérez de los Cobos paid his membership dues until at least 2011. He and his supporters have played down the matter, claiming that the law does not prohibit members of the Constitutional Court from being members of a political party. The Constitution says otherwise. Article 159.4 states that being a member of the Constitutional Court is incompatible “with the carrying out of the directive functions in a political party or labor union, and with providing service to either,” adding: “At the same time, members of the Constitutional Court will be subject to the same incompatibilities as the members of the General Council of the Judiciary (the body that oversees the legal system).” Pérez de los Cobos’ supporters point to a 1988 ruling stating that the rules governing the Constitutional Court “do not impede magistrates from belonging to political parties.”
Let us leave the jurists to argue over interpretation of the rulebook. What voters want is to be able to trust the independence and impartiality of the people tasked with applying the law. And this has been brought into question. This is not about casting out magistrates on the basis of their political allegiances, but to guarantee the most impartial interpretation of the law possible. Party allegiances are not compatible with applying the law, and much less so when the person in question heads up the Constitutional Court.
Pérez de los Cobos is not the first member of the Constitutional Court to have clear political allegiances. Andrés Ollero, currently a member, was a PP elected representative for 17 years, and only left the party shortly before he was elected a member of the Constitutional Court. But his colleague Pérez de los Cobos did not disclose his membership of the PP.
Pérez de los Cobos’ professional abilities are not in doubt; what is under question is his lack of rigor, not to mention common sense in not revealing his membership of the PP. As a result, his authority has been brought into question. He should be the first to understand the consequences of his actions.