June 18, 2013
To the Court House
By Marcelo García.-
Few things (if any) happen by coincidence in Argentine politics these days, much less if you are the country’s top judge. So when Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti decides to deliver his annual State of the Courts speech just a couple of days before the presidential State of the Nation address yesterday, one can only speculate his timing was carefully analyzed.
The result: the back-to-back speeches of the President and the Chief Justice — three and a half hours long hers, just over half an hour long his — seemed like a conversation in public between the leaders of two of the country’s branches of power.
Lorenzetti measured his every word on Tuesday. He read a speech he said he had agreed with the rest of the members of the Supreme Court, and he made every single effort to stress his points on freedom of expression while, at the same time, make it clear that he cultivates a profile which is almost exactly the opposite to that of the President.
“We must be respectful of diversity and plurality of opinions within the Judiciary,” started off Lorenzetti. He added this Supreme Court, largely appointed by the government of the President’s husband and predecessor, the late Néstor Kirchner, had “kept what was right and changed what we believed was wrong.”
And then the Chief Justice enumerated the rights his Court has sought to expand: the first right he chose to mention was freedom of expression.
“Since its foundation, the Court defended the right to freedom of expression, which we have developed to meet its present time form. Examples of that is (our) affirmation of the right to express criticism in a democratic society and the control of State advertising when used as a mechanism of indirect censorship,” said Lorenzetti.
State advertising, that’s a thorn in the relationship between the government and the Supreme Court. The written version of the speech distributed by the Court’s press office included a note mentioning two rulings ordering the State to set up an objective and transparent system to distribute the hundreds of millions spent every year on government advertising in media. These cases were filed by two newspapers, Río Negro and Perfil, against the governments of the province of Neuquén and the federal government respectively. The two publications are now intermittently getting State ads but no allocation framework has been established by law.
Lorenzetti’s speech, however, was so balanced that the editors of the rivalling media camps could both use his words for the benefit of their own editorial/political causes. The oppositionist daily Clarín stressed the Justice’s “warning” against the government’s alleged attempt to attack the independence of the courts, while the staunchly pro-government’s Tiempo Argentino highlighted Lorenzetti’s line that the courts need to “change in the benefit of the people.” The daily Página/12, also pro-government, could only find one way to headline the Lorenzetti story: “The funambulist.”
Yesterday, the President barely mentioned media affairs directly, as she had done in previous years (in March 2010, the President had said the words that would mark her government’s communications policy since then, “There is a virtual country showed by the media and a real country nobody knows about”). But there was plenty of anti-Grupo Clarín confetti inside and outside Parliament and the President made a few implicit mentions of the media conglomerate. As her speech reached momentum near the end, when she announced her court reform plans, it was pretty clear that the legal cobweb surrounding the Broadcasting Law passed in 2009 was one of the main reasons why her administration had decided to bring court reform to the top of its legislative agenda for this year.
“Some believed there would be a new government come 2011 and that is why they thought an injunction would save them” from complying with the law, the President said when announcing she would send Congress a bill to reform the way judges trigger-happily sign injunction court freezes. Needless to say, she was talking about Grupo Clarín.
When he spoke three days earlier, Lorenzetti seemed to see the whole thing coming. “We believe that the Judicial Power must change, and that this change has to be in the benefit of the people,” he had said. “Access to information and open government are very important policies of transparency for us.” Yesterday, the President also announced a bill to open up court information — from judges’ sworn statement of assets to the number and length of cases being handled at each court. State television caught the Chief Justice in a close-up shot forcing himself to a nervous smile and a timid nod as the President was making her court reform announcements.
The court reform drive may be an indication that the government believes it has won the war on Grupo Clarín — or else that court reform is the final push it needs to do so. An Appeals Court prosecutor opined this week that the 2009 Broadcasting Law stands the constitutional test (it is the third ruling in the same direction in the case, which will ultimately land in the Supreme Court), but he was also careful to make a distinction between the text of the law and its implementation (thus clearing the road for a more low intensity legal fight in the future). Courthouse accountability might be different by then.