Argentina's congress limits judicial independence

Apr 25, 2013, 11:42 AM EDT
A retiree dressed as an ant protests the comprehensive judicial reform proposed by President Cristina Fernandez outside Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Lawmakers began debating major changes to the country's justice system Wednesday. Lawmakers began debating major changes to the country's justice system Wednesday. Some of the changes would end indefinite injunctions against government actions, expand and popularly elect most of the magistrate's council and require executive,
(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina's congress passed new limits on judicial independence Thursday, key parts of a package of laws the government promises will "democratize" the country's courts.

Opponents say these new laws provide yet another reason not to invest in Argentina, because private property will be much more difficult to protect and President Cristina Fernandez and her appointees will have free reign to govern without court interference.

After shouting at each other throughout the night, deputies approved strict limits on injunctions against government policies, with only a few exceptions for environmental and human rights cases and "socially vulnerable" plaintiffs. They also approved three new appellate courts.

The key votes were 130 in favor — just one more than they needed — with the ruling Front for Victory party and most of its allies joining in. Because the senate already approved these two measures, they'll become law once officially published.

Another key measure making it easier to discipline and fire judges now goes back to the senate for final approval, along with three other measures already approved in the House.

Lawmakers who lacked the votes to block them in congress announced they would challenge them as unconstitutional, giving the supreme court the final word.

Argentina's judiciary system is plagued with problems, which the government often blames on rules made during the 1976-1983 dictatorship and judges who respond more to corporate interests than popular will. Civil conflicts can take many years to resolve, if ever. Criminals remain free pending long-delayed appeals. Judges impose injunctions that remain in place indefinitely while failing to address the merits of cases.

"This is not a government that restricts rights, but one that amplifies them," Front for Victory Deputy Hector Recalde said.

But the new limits on judicial independence have been resisted by many sectors of society, from press freedom and human rights groups to environmental organizations, unions and business chambers. Criticism also came from abroad, with Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco predicting that presidents will get automatic majorities on the council of magistrates, enabling them to fire judges at will.

"Every one of us agrees with the need to reform the judiciary, but never at the cost of independence," Peronist Front Deputy Alfredo Atanasof said as the debate stretched on.

"We're going to be in a much less secure Argentina from a legal standpoint," Atanasof warned. "Nobody wants to come and invest in a country that is legally insecure."

A crowd held vigil throughout the night outside Congress, and judicial workers were striking nationwide Thursday in opposition.

These changes won final approval:

— An end to indefinite injunctions against government actions. The government often cited Grupo Clarin, the opposition media group whose injunction has blocked an anti-monopoly law from taking effect for more than three years.

— The creation of appellate courts to handle civil, administrative, labor and social security cases. Now challenges to government policies will be decided by new courts that opponents fear will be packed with government allies.

This change won senate and house approval, but must return for another senate vote:

— Expand and popularly elect most of the magistrate's council, and make it so judges with lifetime appointments can be disciplined with a majority vote, rather than two-thirds. Shift control of the judiciary's budget from the council to the supreme court. Twelve of 19 spots on the council would be filled by the leading parties of congress, according to the percentage of votes they get in the latest elections.

These changes approved by the House now go to the senate:

—Requirements that the wealth declarations of judicial as well as executive and legislative authorities be published online, to more easily reveal potential conflicts of interest.

— Requirements that all federal court decisions be published online, to increase transparency.

— Open competitions, rather than nepotism or connections, to fill judicial jobs.


Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.