Lone Progressive on Supreme Court Ousted in Judicial Coup
On Monday, October 14, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of El Salvador ruled that the Legislative Assembly’s election of Salomon Padilla, head magistrate over both the court and the Constitutional Chamber, was unconstitutional due to Padilla’s membership with the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party. The decision robs the Constitutional Chamber of its first and only progressive member in decades; the remaining magistrates (known as the “Fantastic Four”) have consistently represented the interests of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. With the 2014 presidential elections on the horizon, the move could portend a right-wing strategy to use the court to challenge an FMLN victory. Indeed, as witnessed in Honduras and Paraguay, the judicial or “constitutional” coup d’état has become the favored means of the Latin American right-wing, with US government support, to overthrow democratically elected presidents who demonstrate left-leaning sympathies. The magistrates’ internal coup has troubling political implications. As Dr. José Humberto Morales, legal professor at the National University of El Salvador notes, nearly all previous Supreme Court presidents were ARENA party members, many with “very explicit partisan affiliations.” Padilla’s appointment in 2012 was thus historic, the result of a brutal 27-day negotiation mediated by President Funes in the Legislative Assembly that ended up breaking ARENA’s historic hold on the judicial branch; ARENA had pitted itself against every other party in the Assembly following the Fantastic Four’s annulment of ten magistrates’ elections, losing serious political credibility as the sole obstacle to the resolution of the conflict generated by the court. In fact, a 2008 leaked US Embassy cable revealed ARENA plans to focus on “control of key institutions, including the Supreme Court” in the case of a Funes victory in the 2009 presidential elections to destabilize and obstruct governance. Since their election to the bench in 2009, the Fantastic Four have issued a series of controversial rulings and annulled the Assembly’s selection of a host of public officials, including an attorney general, three Auditing Court magistrates, a Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrate, a Minister of Public Security and Director of the Police along with ten Supreme Court magistrates. The Assembly has yet to elect a new president to the court and chamber, but the favorite appears to be magistrate Elsy Bueñas de Avilés of the court’s Criminal Chamber, who has been linked to the right-wing Grand Alliance for Unity (GANA) party. In the mean time, the role of the Supreme Court in recent coups in neighboring Honduras and Paraguay stands as a stark warning of the Salvadoran Fantastic Four’s possible aims. With the FMLN holding strong in the polls, the right-wing magistrates seem to be consolidating their power as the elections approach.