Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Third Justice on Corruption-Tainted Supreme Court Resigns

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 23 2003 (IPS) - The political offensive in Argentina to restore the prestige of the Supreme Court led to the fall of yet another judge, who handed in his resignation Thursday to avoid an imminent impeachment trial for malfeasance.

Judge Guillermo López said he would leave his post on Dec. 1. The announcement came just hours before the start of a meeting of the Chamber of Deputies impeachment commission.

The commission was convened to study the multiple charges against the justice and, if determined to have merit, would then ask the Senate to remove López from the bench.

The chairman of the commission, Deputy Ricardo Falú, said López’s resignation helps to end an era in which ”the executive and judiciary branches exchanged favours to guarantee impunity” for serious crimes – a reference to a number of much-criticised Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s.

López’s decision brings to three the number of justices who have resigned from the nine-member Court, long accused of following the dictates of the government of Carlos Menem (1989-1999). A fourth judge has been suspended.

The economic-social collapse of December 2001 and the subsequent resignation of then-president Fernando de la Rúa stoked criticisms of the Supreme Court justices.

The Association of Labour Attorneys is one of the groups that has organised weekly protests on Thursdays outside the Supreme Court since December 2001, demanding that all of the justices step down.

The Association’s secretary-general, Mónica Jensen, told IPS she is pleased that López resigned. But she said it would have been better for the judges to be tried and, as a consequence, to lose the benefits that they retain if they merely step down, including a pension of nearly 5,000 dollars a month.

Jensen, who pledges to continue participating in protests demanding a complete overhaul of the Supreme Court, said that in the field of labour law, ”this Court systematically ruled against the rights of workers, and the judge that did not act wrongly through commission did so through omission.”

In a survey conducted by the Enrique Zuleta Puceiro polling firm, 92 percent of respondents described as ”good or very good” the decision by the Chamber of Deputies to demand the impeachment of the members of the Court, while 70 percent said all of the Court’s justices should be replaced.

Most of the allegations against the justices date back to the early 1990s, when Menem convinced Congress, where he enjoyed a majority, to vote in favour of the expansion of the Court from five to nine members, and packed the Court with four hand-picked judges.

The new justices, plus the ones already sitting on the Court who also tended to rule in favour of the government’s decisions, comprised an ”automatic majority”.

These judges provided a juridical basis for the government’s initiatives, no matter how controversial, and a foundation for the cozy ties between powerful business elites and the government, according to critics.

But accusations against Supreme Court judges and demands for impeachment set forth by opposition lawmakers failed to prosper in Congress due to the lack of support from the two strongest parties, Menem’s Justicialista (Peronist) Party and the Radical Civic Union.

However, last year, the caretaker government of Eduardo Duhalde gave its support to the complete renovation of the Court, which paved the way for a frustrated attempt to hold impeachment trials in the lower house of Congress of all of the justices.

Although that effort fell flat, it prompted the resignation of Judge Gustavo Bossert, who, although not one of the most heavily questioned justices, claimed ”moral exhaustion” over the constant accusations against the Court. The vacancy was filled by then-Senator José Luis Maqueda, who was proposed by Duhalde.

But the demands to overhaul the Court have taken on new momentum since left-leaning President Néstor Kirchner of the Justicialista Party was sworn in on May 25.

Just two weeks after taking office, Kirchner accused the Court of using its verdicts to block his administration’s initiatives, such as decisions involving the financial system. He asked parliament to hold separate impeachment trials for each magistrate.

The Chamber of Deputies then initiated impeachment trials against Supreme Court president Julio Nazareno, who resigned after evidence had been gathered in relation to 22 charges of malfeasance.

This month, the Senate suspended Justice Eduardo Moliné O’Connor until the impeachment trial was complete.

Among the charges facing Moliné O’Connor and López are those related the so-called ”Meller case”, in which the Meller company signed a phone-book publishing contract in the early 1990s with Entel, the government telephone monopoly at the time.

In the case, the Court ordered Entel to pay Meller damages of 30 million dollars for alleged non-compliance by the state enterprise, in spite of the fact that several audits considered the figure highly disproportionate to the services rendered by Meller.

Another case in which Moliné O’Connor and López, as well as Nazareno, were implicated is the Macri case, in which a much-criticised Court decision let off business tycoon Francisco Macri, accused of car smuggling and tax evasion.

Cabinet chief Alberto Fernández said Thursday that López resigned for ”absolutely personal” reasons, but ”in line with the idea of giving new oxygen to the judicial system, and the Supreme Court in particular.”

That is why the Kirchner administration, on the recommendation of civil society groups, including human rights organisations, decided that the candidates for the Supreme Court will be submitted to public scrutiny before public Senate hearings take place prior to the final vote on the appointment.

To replace Nazareno, Kirchner has proposed Eugenio Zaffaroni, a criminal lawyer renowned at home and abroad for his defence of human rights, and a former head of the United Nations Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders.

Zaffaroni’s appointment was ratified Wednesday, with the backing of human rights activists, leftist parties and civil society leaders.

Kirchner must now propose candidates to fill the vacancies left by López and Moliné O’Connor, if the latter’s impeachment trial ends in his removal.

The possible replacements are likely to include women – only one has ever served on Argentina’s Supreme Court – and individuals representing different legal specialties and even the country’s different regions.

Cabinet chief Fernández stressed that the government is committed to ensuring that the new vacancy will be filled by a man or woman who is technically and morally appropriate for the position, though he did not name names.

Deputy Marcela Rodríguez, of the centre-left Party for a Republic of Equals and author of the book "Women and Justice", presented a bill in June that would set a quota for women justices on the Supreme Court. Such quotas already exist for both houses of Congress.

"The absence of the female perspective in the Court perpetuates the situation of the exclusion of women in public life," says the legislative initiative, which proposes that there cannot be more than 70 percent of either men or women on the bench.

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