The federal Senate has approved a proposal to extend the term of the chief justice of the Supreme Court by two years, a move that critics say is a coup d’etat by the government against the judiciary.
The move opens the way for Arturo Zaldívar, considered an ally of President López Obrador, to stay in the position until the end of the current government’s six-year term.
The proposal to extend Zaldívar’s term was presented by Green party Senator Raúl Bolaños at a session on Thursday and supported by a majority of lawmakers with the ruling Morena party and its allies as well as some opposition senators.
Eighty senators voted in favor, 25 voted against and four abstained.
The Senate also approved a proposal to extend the term of the members of the Federal Judiciary Council (CJF), which is led by Zaldívar, until 2026.
After the Senate session, the CJF said in a statement that it had not requested any extension to the terms of the chief justice or its members.
Senator Dante Delgado, leader of the Citizens Movement party in the upper house, claimed that the extensions are related to a desire by López Obrador’s to control the judiciary. He called on Zaldívar to refuse the extension to his term, which he described as a “legal aberration.”
A reform cannot be passed by the Congress for the benefit of one person, Delgado said.
“This cannot be allowed,” the senator said, adding that his party will “report the brutal violation of the division of powers” to international authorities.
Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) Senator Claudia Ruiz Massieu said her party hadn’t heard of the proposal before it was presented and was taken by surprise. Some PRI senators voted in favor of the extension of the chief justice’s term because they weren’t well-informed about the proposal, she said.
Ruiz asserted that the extension violates the constitution, which stipulates term lengths for judges.
José Ramón Cossío — an academic and former Supreme Court judge — and constitutional lawyer Diago Valadés also claimed that the extension of Zaldívar’s term was unconstitutional.
“The period of the president of the court cannot be extended. Chief Justice Zaldívar is a serious constitutionalist who doesn’t deserve to be the object of maneuvers that expose him to unfavorable comments,” Valadés wrote on Twitter.
National Action Party Senator Damián Zepeda claimed that the government had carried out a takeover of the judicial branch.
“[It was] a coup d’état on the judiciary … because they’re trying to take control of that power by illegal means,” he said.
Zepeda said the chief justice’s term extension could be a precursor to a proposal to extend López Obrador’s term, which ends in 2024.
Morena’s leader in the upper house, Senator Ricardo Monreal, ruled out that possibility, saying that the president was elected for six years and there are no legal grounds for extending it.
López Obrador, who has been accused of seeking to concentrate power in the executive, distanced himself from the issue.
“It’s a decision that the senators took,” he told reporters at his regular news conference on Friday.
“The initiative will now go to the Chamber of Deputies to be debated and approved as the case may be. I have confidence in him [Zaldívar]. I consider him an upright man, an honest person,” López Obrador said, adding that he supports the extension of his term so that he can continue to lead an overhaul of the judicial system.
“But I’m not going to decide; the lawmakers will,” he said.