November 23, 2014
Three cheers for Zaffaroni
Eugenio Zaffaroni’s confirmation in a newspaper interview that he will retire as Supreme Court justice when he turns 75 in January next year should not sound like something out of the ordinary. He will, after all, have reached the retirement age stipulated in the Constitution for the position that he currently holds. Yet Zaffaroni’s decision does stand out as something extraordinary in a nation that has notorious precedents of institutional rule-bending of every kind. Two other Supreme Court justices (Carlos Fayt and Enrique Petracchi) are way past the 75-year mark (Fayt is 95) but they were appointed before said retirement age was introduced, and they can’t be forced to step down. Yet for how long will Fayt and Petracchi look the other way and hold on to their top court chairs now that their colleague Zaffaroni, who could have also held on to his position by using other arguments, still plans to bow out?
It’s all too easy to single out politicians for what are often disproportionate ambitions to perpetuate themselves in power, but at least two Supreme Court justices seem to be doing the same with little condemnation from public opinion. The president herself was forced to cut out any alleged re-election scheming due to the street demonstrations against her government and last year’s defeat in all the major districts. The decision by the two Supreme Court justices to continue contesting their retirement age should be the subject of some debate, even when they are not unpopular and have served their country well.
The beauty of Zaffaroni’s retirement story is that there can be little political speculation attached. Unless there is some unannounced plan to make him change his mind, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will not get a chance to nominate a new judge because she herself sponsored a move to bring down the number of justices to five, meaning that there is no room to replace retiring court members. Zaffaroni is a progressive justice who has opposed zero tolerance policies to tackle what is perceived as rampant crime. But by openly accepting the rules he has now put himself beyond the ideological debate. Zaffaroni’s looming retirement brings to the forefront not ideology, but the personal decency and ethics of public officials.