Spain's Constitutional Court halts judiciary reform law proposed by congress, a first in history

Catalan president believes judges' decision is similar to the one taken in the past regarding Catalonia's independence push

Exterior image of the Constitutional Court
Exterior image of the Constitutional Court / Tània Tàpia
Catalan News

Catalan News | @catalannews | Barcelona

December 20, 2022 09:50 AM

December 20, 2022 07:39 PM

Spain's Constitutional Court has accepted the People's Party's request to precautionarily suspend the parliamentary procedure of the new judiciary law which was included in the penal code reform, the first time such a decision has been made. This does not affect the reform of the crimes of sedition or misuse of public funds.

The move, passed by the six votes of the conservative majority against five from the progressive side, means that the reform of the judicial system will not continue its procedure in the Senate. 

The new legislation was already passed in Congress on Thursday last week and is expected to be voted on in the high chamber on Thursday, but not all of its content.

On Tuesday morning, the Senate bureau decided to continue the parliamentary procedure of the penal code reform after removing the articles referring to the new judiciary legislation under study by the Constitutional Court.

Clash between government branches

Halting the process was a clear clash against the legislative branch of power, which voted in favor of changing the system to name new Constitutional Court judges and members of the Spanish Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ). 

These two proposals were suggested in Congress by lawmakers during the parliamentary procedure of the reform of the Penal Code submitted by the two governing parties, the Socialists and Unidas Podemos.

The reform anticipated that the CGPJ did not need a majority to appoint the members of the Constitutional Court. Currently, the People's Party is blocking the naming of new members as it is a conservative majority. 

The other amendment under study is related to the Spanish government's decision on court members. As things are, the executive can appoint two judges but needs to wait for the CGPJ to name its candidates

The reform aimed to unlink the appointments from the executive to those from the judicial branch, allowing them to choose the judges even if there was no agreement with the CGPJ.

How appointment of judges' governing body works in Spain

The CGPJ is in charge of appointments, promotions, and transfers of judges, as well as inspecting how courts work and "staunchly safeguarding the independence of the judiciary," protecting it from the other powers. 

Yet, it is the Congress and the Senate, the legislative power, that appoints the members of the CGPJ leadership. Both chambers require three-fifths majorities to appoint a new team when the five-year mandates in CGPJ expire. 

In December 2018, the current members of the governing body reached the end of their terms, but continued since then to hold their posts since the Socialists and the People's Party – essential for the three-fifths majority – had been unable to agree on successors. 

The CGPJ president is also the head of Spain's Supreme Court. 

'Unprecedented moment'

The decision by the Constitutional Court was completely "unprecedented in the 44 years of the Spanish democracy," Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said in a live statement made from the government's La Moncloa headquarters on Tuesday morning. 

"The government will take any necessary measure to put an end to the unjustifiable obstruction of the renewals of the judiciary and Constitutional Court," says Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez / Catalan News

While the cabinet will abide by the court's decision, they will also implement "measures to put an end to this unjustifiable blocking of the judiciary branch," he added.

The leader believes it all comes down to the People's Party's losing the 2019 elections. Because of that, they just "want to keep a power that citizens did not elect in the ballot boxes."

"Democracy requires respect for the law," the Spanish leader concluded.

Catalonia, a pilot scheme

"Judges used Catalonia as a test lab, and currently, brave enough, they are applying their jurisprudence across Spain," Catalan president Pere Aragonès tweeted on Monday night in an apparent reference to the judicial procedure started after the 2017 independence referendum.

"The Spanish right-wing kidnaps institutions and we will only be free with a brave and progressive agenda where Catalonia finally becomes a republic," he added. 

Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont also recalled what happened five years ago after the Court's decision. 

"This headline is from 2017," he tweeted when sharing an article about the Constitutional Court ruling. "Let's see if [politicians] say the same as back then, especially the Socialists, that fattened the monster when sacrificing the institutions from Catalans," he added.

On a similar note, the current general secretary of pro-independence Junts, Jordi Turull, who was imprisoned and then pardoned because of his involvement in the 2017 referendum, accused Spain of being a "level 0 democracy."

"The Spanish government has to decide whether it wants to knock down this right-wing political and judicial coalition, or if it wants to continue collaborating with it when it is in their interest," says the Catalan government / Catalan News

"In Spain, politics are led by judicial robes and not ballot boxes. There is no division of the judicial and legislative branches, there is a power cross," he added. 

"In Catalonia, we are well aware of this and we have been suffering for years, and this is why we are working to be an independent country," he concluded.

Decision against democracy

A few hours after the court decision, Spanish presidency minister Félix Bolaños announced that the executive would obey the court's decision despite being of "extreme seriousness," as judges made a decision that halts Congress activity "in record time and with lack of majority," affecting "the bases of our democracy."

The court "stopped its renovation pending for over six months, thanks to the votes of the magistrates who decided their future," the minister added.

For him, the reasons behind the People's Party and their judicial processes is to "control the Spanish congress when they have a majority and when they do not have one," he said. 

"Unfortunately, today, we opened a door that we do not know where it will lead us," he added.

Opposed to Aragonès and Bolaños, the People's Party leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, welcomed the news of the Constitutional Court. 

"Our democracy is now stronger," he tweeted before adding that "in a state, all branches are under the law."

"Despite noise and pressures, we will continue to defend Spain and its institutions without fear and without surrendering, from a moderate and reasonable point of view," he concluded.

Penal Code reform

The judiciary reform law was part of a broader renovation of the Spanish Penal Code proposed by the Socialists and Unidas Podemos in Congress recently. 

The goal of the two groups who currently make up the Spanish coalition government was to erase the crime of sedition and change it to one of "aggravated public disorders." 

During the parliamentary procedure, political parties amended the text to include a change on the charges of the crime of misuse of public funds.

Approved in Congress, the text continued its parliamentary procedure to the Senate. However, before it was green-lighted in the chamber, the People's Party submitted precautionary measures to the Constitutional Court for part of the text.

Spain's top court convened on the morning of the day of the vote, delaying the congressional debate, before announcing it would meet again on Monday to decide on the appeal, prompting the People's Party, far-right Vox, and Ciudadanos to call on Congress to postpone the vote until after the court ruling.

The Spanish government "is doing what separatism did in 2017," Ciudadanos' Inés Arrimadas said, in reference to the year the independence referendum deemed illegal by Spain was held. 

This led many left-leaning lawmakers to draw comparisons with the failed 1981 military coup, while pro-independence MPs brought up the Constitutional Court warnings against debates and motions in the Catalan parliament about leaving Spain and the monarchy.