The Alberto Fernández administration's controversial judicial reform bill cleared the Senate in the first minutes of Friday morning by a 40-26 vote along strict party lines.
The controversial proposal, which the opposition strongly rejects, now faces an uphill battle in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, where Frente de Todos does not hold a majority.
Perhaps mindful of the upcoming challenge, lawmakers at the last minute dropped the bill’s most controversial amendment – a clause inserted by Neuquén Senator Oscar Parrilli obliging judges to denounce “media pressures,” which could potentially result in any report on corruption leading to the corresponding trial being nixed. The bill was also heavily modified during its progress through the upper chamber.
President Fernández says the reform bill will help to "overcome the crisis that affects the credibility" of Argentina’s judicial system. The proposed legislation would see the number of federal courts increased and establish a commission to study potential further changes to the Council of Magistrates and Supreme Court.
Due to the restrictions in place to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday’s session was basically virtual, thus enabling 66 of the 72 senators to vote. Two of the three La Rioja senators were among the few absentees – ailing 90-year-old former president Carlos Menem and Clara Vega are undergoing tests for coronavirus, while former Tucumán governor José Alperovich, facing sexual abuse charges, recently extended his leave.
The ruling Frente de Todos caucus accounted for 37 of the 40 positive votes while the nays came almost exclusively from the Juntos por el Cambio centre-right opposition.
The opposition’s virtual rejection of the bill was accompanied outside Congress by live protest action from a few hundred demonstrators, some of whom staged an overnight vigil. Their reduced numbers mostly stemmed from three factors: rainfall on the day; being wrong-footed by the session being held on Thursday when calls to protest on social networks had prepared for a Wednesday protest; and the fact that many leading government figures (including lower house Speaker Sergio Massa) are having cold feet about pressing ahead with the move, while even Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner distanced herself this week.
In the course of the week, leading Juntos por el Cambio moderates such as Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and former Buenos Aires Province governor María Eugenia Vidal criticised the reform for the first time as hasty and lacking consensus, thus making opposition rejection unanimous.
One of the main aims of the reform is to break up the concentration of judicial power in the dozen judges at the Comodoro Py federal courthouse by creating numerous new benches – a total of 28 in the capital and a further 65 in inland provinces (five of which will also receive new appeals courts). This multiplication of judicial and legal posts (almost trebled from the original draft to over 900 for inland provinces) was criticised by Senator Esteban Bullrich (Juntos por el Cambio-Buenos Aires Province) as doubling the cost of the reform from three to six billion pesos.
Thursday’s debate lasted some nine hours. Senator María de los Ángeles Sacnum (Frente de Todos-Santa Fe) argued that the reform was vital in order to restore the independence of justice from the “lawfare of the Mauricio Macri administration persecuting opposition politicians with the help of intelligence agents, prosecutors, judges and journalists.”
But Laura Rodríguez Machado (Juntos por el Cambio-Córdoba) rejected the reform on the grounds that it was limited to federal criminal courts trying corruption (alongside drug-trafficking and terrorism) and thus aimed at defusing those trials, especially the multiple corruption charges against ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who presided over Thursday’s session in her role as vice-president.
Fernández de Kirchner offered her own take on the issue this week, partially agreing with this criticism in a post on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Sincerely I believe that this country still owes itself a genuine judicial reform, which is not what we are going to debate on Thursday – it’s not an integral reform bill,” she wrote.
The vice-president had been widely seen as the driving force behind this reform even more than President Fernández, who made it the focal point of his state-of-the-nation address last March.
Fernández de Kirchner used her control of the Senate to make several changes to the original draft (including the Parrilli amendment) altering its direction.