By MICHAEL WARREN, Associated Press
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina's congress was hotly debating major changes to the country's justice system on Wednesday.
President Cristina Fernandez said the laws her allies are pushing through Congress will finally make the nation's courts more democratic and responsive to the will of the people. Her opponents see it as a thinly disguised effort to become all-powerful that will effectively end the separation of powers in Argentina.
While lawmakers shouted at each other in the Senate and House of Deputies throughout Wednesday's long debate, a crowd of politicians, civil organizations, unions and other groups gathered outside Congress, predicting the end of Argentina's democracy. Judicial workers went on strike nationwide.
Criticism also rained in from overseas, as press freedom and human rights groups warned that free speech and the right to challenge government policies will be weakened if her majorities in both houses insist on approving the changes. "This reform would give Argentina's ruling party an automatic majority on the council that oversees the judiciary, which seriously compromises judicial independence," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch in Washington.
The changes would, among other things:
— End indefinite injunctions against government actions. An injunction against an anti-monopoly law protected the opposition Grupo Clarin media group for more than three years.
— Expand and popularly elect most of the magistrate's council, and make it so judges with lifetime appointments can be disciplined with a majority vote, rather than two-thirds.
— Create appellate courts to handle civil, administrative, labor and social security cases. Currently, all but criminal cases are appealed directly to Argentina's Supreme Court.
— Require executive, legislative and judicial authorities to publish their tax declarations online. Fernandez says this will increase transparency and show whose interests are protected by judges.
— Require courts to post their decisions online.
— Fill judicial jobs through open competitions, rather than nepotism.
Fernandez says the changes will speed justice, and make it more transparent and democratic.
"In our country's history, the economic powers have always tried to block democracy," Justice Minister Julio Alak said on the eve of the debate. "There are sectors in the justice system that respond more to the economically powerful than the law."
But opponents fear the president will pack the magistrates' council and the new appellate courts with her allies, who in turn will protect her government from corruption investigations and block any challengers to her power.
Each of these measures has already been approved either by senators or deputies, and was being debated Wednesday in the opposite chamber. Most could become law after this round of voting, although given the lengthy debate, some were not expected to be voted on until Thursday.
The package of laws seriously weakens Argentina's democracy and "confirms once again the character of absolute power that Cristina Fernandez has," said Pablo Micheli, who runs the opposition wing of the CTA union coalition. Others carried signs defending judicial independence and saying "Enough impunity."
Even close government allies challenged the limits on court injunctions as unconstitutional. The proposed law would limit injunctions to six months in cases against the government, and remove injunctions entirely if the government appeals. In response, the wording was changed to enable injunctions on behalf of "socially vulnerable sectors" with or without government approval. Opponents say the change was meaningless and it remains unconstitutional.
Opposition lawmaker Elisa Carrio alleged that some members of the Supreme Court were conspiring with the government to shape the laws, including a change that shifts power over the judiciary's budget to the justices, rather than the magistrates' council. That change now requires another vote in the Senate.
The margin was tight, with some ruling party members breaking from their allies during the debate. Front for Victory Deputy Jorge Yoma said the laws "put at risk the freedom of conscience of a judge when he rules."
The limits on injunctions and the changes to the magistrates' council generated the most debate. The council would change from 13 appointed members to 19, and 12 of these would be popularly elected, filling spots according to the same majorities and minorities obtained in congress. "They want each party that wins the presidential elections to carry its majority into the council. This will create an automatic majority of at least 10 or more of the members," Vivanco warned.
Associated Press Writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this story.