Cablegate: Senate Approves Two New Ministers for Mexico's Evolving

Published: Mon 28 Dec 2009 10:48 PM
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1. Summary: On December 1, the Senate approved two new Supreme
Court ministers with little public debate or review of their
qualifications. Luis Maria Aguilar Morales and Arturo Zaldivar Lelo
de Larrea assume their prestigious positions at a crucial time in
the court's development. Over recent years, the Supreme Court has
taken moderate steps to assert its independence after 70 years of
one party rule. While the opaque process for nominations suggests
more room for growth in terms of transparency, both ministers appear
well qualified and offer hope for less political bias on cases in
the future. End summary.
The Senate Chooses...
2. (SBU) Mexico's Supreme Court consists of nine ministers, two of
whom recently retired when they reached the end of their 15 year
terms. On December 1, the Senate approved Luis Maria Aguilar
Morales and Arturo Zaldivar Lelo de Larrea as new Supreme Court
Ministers at the conclusion of an underwhelming selection process.
Aguilar and Zaldivar replace outgoing ministers Mariano Azuela
Guitron and Genaro Gongora Pimentel. The Senate chose from six
candidates - a list of three for each vacancy -- nominated by the
President. During a Senate hearing held December 1, each aspirant
had fifteen minutes to present to Senators his qualifications,
philosophy, and reasons for wanting to serve on the court. After
their brief presentations, 91 PRI, PAN, and PRD Senators voted to
approve Aguilar and 90 members of the same parties voted to approve
Zaldivar, easily meeting the 2/3 majority (Mexico's Senate has 128
Senators) required by the Constitution. Labor Party (PT) Senator
Ricardo Monreal proposed postponing the vote one week to have more
time to investigate the candidates, but his proposal was rejected
prior to voting. Other Senators, including Alejandro Gonzalez
Alcocer (PAN President of the Justice Committee) and Pablo Gomez
(PRD), complained to the press about the lack of information
available on the candidates, but neither explained his vote after
the hearing.
3. (SBU) Not only was the Senate vetting process short and shallow
(Calderon submitted to the Senate his list of nominations only eight
days prior to the vote), so too was the vetting of the new ministers
in the press. Major media outlets gave little coverage to the
candidates and their qualifications prior to the vote, but
accurately predicted that Aguilar and Zaldivar would be selected,
indicating party negotiations had helped position both. After the
confirmation of Attorney General (PGR) Arturo Chavez Chavez, rumors
swirled that the PRI had agreed to approve Calderon's PGR nominee in
exchange for its pick of President of the National Human Rights
Commission and a seat on the Supreme Court. Although insiders have
played this one close to the vest, some commentators have suggested
Zaldivar was backed by the PAN while Aguilar's long legal history
appears to link him to the PRI.
...Two New Ministers with Long Legal Histories.
4. (U) With long careers in law and the judiciary, Aguilar and
Zaldivar easily satisfied the basic eligibility requirements for
their new positions. Article 95 of the Mexican Constitution requires
that a Supreme Court minister:
-be a Mexican citizen by birth,
-be at least 35 years old,
-have held a law degree for at least ten years,
-have a good reputation and never have been convicted of a crime
that carries a penalty of a year or more in prison,
-have lived in the country for at least two years prior to being
-not have been a State Secretary, Chief of Administration, Attorney
General, Senator, Federal Deputy, or Governor in the year prior to
his nomination.
5. (SBU) Born in Mexico City in 1949, Luis Aguilar most recently
served as a member of the Judicial Council, a board belonging to the
judicial branch of government which oversees the nomination,
ratification, and removal of circuit magistrates and district
judges. Aguilar was named to that post in 2004 after a long career
in which he had served as a Supreme Court clerk, Chief of Staff to
the Supreme Court President, and Administrative Secretary of
Communications for the Supreme Court. He has also been a district
judge and circuit magistrate in Morelos and Mexico City, serving in
six different courts since 1985. He won the National Legion of
Honor for Judicial Merit Award, is an honorary member of the Mexican
Institute for the "Amparo" (a nonprofit legal organization that
promotes analysis and debate of the Mexican Constitution), and was a
representative to the Mexican Association of Judges (an entity of
the Supreme Court dedicated to the implementation of the 2008
judicial reform). Of the two new ministers, many Supreme Court
watchers predict he will be a more conservative, traditionalist
minister. However, observers also predict his conservative approach
may prove more technical than ideological. In his presentation
before the Senate, he emphasized his commitment to human rights and
6. (SBU) While Aguilar has a long history serving as a judge and
deciding cases, Arturo Zaldivar's background is primarily academic.
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He graduated from the Free School of Law and went on to get his
Doctorate from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM),
where he focused mainly on Constitutional law. He has taught at
various universities, including UNAM, the Autonomous Technical
Institute of Mexico (ITAM), and the Pan-American University. He is
on a number of committees, including the academic committee for the
Federal Judicial Institute and the technical committee for the
Mexican Judicial Reform Magazine, edited by the Supreme Court of
Sonora. Additionally, he serves in a number of academic
institutions, such as the Ibero-American Institute for
Constitutional Law and the Mexican Institute of Constitutional
Process Law. Prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court, he
practiced law for a private firm and wrote numerous articles on
issues such as the amparo, oil reform, and the Constitution. He
maintains a website and a Facebook page. Many observers predict he
will be a more liberal minister with a modern vision for the role of
the Court in Mexican democracy. Embassy contact and political
analyst Sabino Bastidas described Zaldivar as "brilliant." He
predicted Zaldivar would help usher in a new judicial era and
thought Zaldivar would support implementation of Mexico's justice
reform system. In his presentation before the Senate, Zaldivar
emphasized the importance of basic rights and portrayed himself as a
defender of individual freedoms. Zaldivar's nomination tips the
balance of members as he joins the new majority of ministers who
have not served as career judges. For the first time in Mexico's
history, Mexico's highest court is composed of more former lawyers
and academics than judges.
The Outgoing Ministers...
7. (SBU) Aguilar and Zaldivar replace Gongora and Azuela as the
latter two had reached the end of their 15 year term limit. Gongora
and Azuela occupied opposite ends of Mexico's ideological spectrum.
Gongora is a leftist and friend of PRD leader Andres Manuel Lopez
Obrador; Azuela boasts conservative opinions and appears to have
backed Felipe Calderon during his presidential bid. (Note: Azuela
attended meetings with former President Fox at the President's
residence to discuss stripping Lopez Obrador of his immunity as
Mexico City Mayor, making him vulnerable to prosecution and therein
ineligible to run for president. Azuela denies that he made any
decisions, pushed any agenda, or violated the Constitution in any
way. Nonetheless, his attendance created the perception that he was
allied with the center-right Fox administration against Obrador.
End Note)
...Generate Subdued Public Reaction
8. (SBU) Public reaction towards the incoming and outgoing
ministers has been subdued; the recent nominations have generated
little public interest and few media stories. Some editorialists
lamented the quick rush to approve the candidates with minimal
debate. The news outlets that covered the hearing provided few
details on the deliberation process and declined to interview the
leading Senators on judicial issues. In general, the public seems
satisfied with the new ministers but discontent with the section
9. Comment: Although in many ways the Supreme Court has proven its
growing independence by making rulings against the government
(reftels), the closed and shallow approval of the newest ministers
suggests the Court still has a way to go to fully evolve into a
democratic and independent institution. The Senate process was
brief and public scrutiny was practically non-existent. The
President did not explain his nominee choices and no Senators
publically explained their vote. Such limitations restrict the
potential for information on possible conflicts of interest from
emerging and deprive the public of a chance to review thoroughly the
qualifications of nominees to the highest court in Mexico. Despite
the opaque nomination process, the Senate appears to have chosen two
well qualified candidates who will most likely maintain the balance
of the current court. Aguilar brings decades of judicial
experience and a more traditionalist worldview, while Zaldivar
brings years of research and a more modern outlook. We expect the
Court will continue to evolve into a more independent body and
become bolder over time in making rulings based on law that are
occasionally critical of the standing government.
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