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Justice Arturo Zaldívar attends a Supreme Court hearing in Mexico City on March 21, 2012. © 2012 AP Photo/Marco Ugarte.

Mexico’s Congress passed a judicial reform bill on Friday known as the “Zaldívar Law.” The law, supported by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and legislators from his party, Morena, includes a last-minute amendment that would extend the term of Supreme Court President Arturo Zaldívar, for an additional two years.

The move directly contravenes the Mexican constitution and undermines judicial independence. It is nothing less than a direct assault on the rule of law in Mexico. Zaldívar could have politely thanked the president for his praise and, at the same time, rejected publicly and unequivocally this reform that damages the credibility of the judicial system. Instead, unfortunately, Zaldívar has been, in the best of cases, ambivalent.

The amendment is worrying for a number of reasons. First, and most simply, it is inconsistent with the constitution, and so lacks legal legitimacy. The Mexican constitution states that, every four years, the members of Mexico’s Supreme Court will elect a president from among themselves and that the Supreme Court president cannot be re-elected to another consecutive term.

Zaldívar was elected president of the Supreme Court in January 2019 to serve a four-year term, until December 2022. The constitution does not allow for his term to be extended. Any attempt to do so by Congress, the president, or the members of the Supreme Court runs counter to the Mexican constitution.

The provision is a shameless attempt by López Obrador and his party, Morena, to control Mexico’s judicial system. Zaldívar has ruled in favor of López Obrador and his allies, even on some of the court’s most controversial decisions. In October, for example, he voted in favor of López Obrador’s proposal to hold a referendum on whether all the recent former presidents of Mexico should be criminally investigated for corruption. He has also openly ventured into the political arena, publicly supporting President López Obrador when he decided to shelter former members of the Evo Morales government in the Mexican embassy during the serious political crisis Bolivia suffered in 2019.

As president of the Supreme Court, Zaldívar is also the president of the Federal Judiciary Council, the governing body of Mexico’s judicial system. The council appoints, dismisses, promotes, and disciplines federal judges. And it can consolidate multiple cases so they are heard before a single judge, which in some situations, could help the government to influence the outcome. As president of the council, Zaldívar sets the council’s agenda and priorities.

In addition to Zaldívar, there are six other members of the Federal Judiciary Council. Two are appointed by the Senate, controlled by López Obrador’s party, Morena, one is appointed directly by the country’s president himself, and three are appointed by the Supreme Court. That means that, as long as Zaldívar remains president of the Supreme Court and continues to be aligned with López Obrador, the president and his party may be able to count on four of the seven votes on the body that governs Mexico’s judicial system.

With four votes, the council can approve the forced retirement of judges. With just one more vote, López Obrador’s supporters would have enough votes to appoint, sanction, and remove judges. This is particularly worrying, given that López Obrador has demonstrated little care for judicial independence. In fact, just over a month ago, the president publicly asked the council to investigate and sanction a judge who ruled against him in a dispute over his proposed reform of the electrical industry.

To protect human rights and public liberties, it is vital that the judiciary be independent and that its decisions be based on solely on the laws in force and not the whims of the party in power. In the past, Zaldívar himself has insisted on the importance of judicial independence and has spoken out against previous presidents for attempting to interfere in judicial decisions. His position now, as López Obrador and his congressional allies interfere with the independence of the courts, is deplorable.

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