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Spain’s judiciary faces unprecedented turmoil: here’s what you need to know

Renewal of chief judges at a standstill after leaked text reveals political meddling


21 November 2018 04:35 PM


Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

Spain’s justice system is facing an unprecedented crisis following a leaked message scandal that brought out into the open political meddling in the appointment of chief judges.

Manuel Marchena, who was soon to be elected president of the Spanish Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), backed out on Tuesday after a leaked text by People’s Party (PP) spokesperson Ignacio Cosidó revealed that his appointment was seen as serving the interests of the party.

In a Whatsapp message sent to his colleagues, Cosidó said that Marchena’s appointment would mean conservative judges would win against the progressives in most votes, and claimed they would "control from behind the scenes" the court chamber where Catalan independence leaders will be tried.

With Marchena gone, PP broke the deal with the ruling Socialists to renew chief judges—the only major agreement between Spain’s two main parties since president Pedro Sánchez came to power last spring after ousting PP’s former leader.

Sánchez accused the conservatives of bringing "democracy’s fundamental institution" to a standstill in order to cover up their "disgrace."

Pablo Casado, PP’s new head, responded to Sánchez saying he "did not have any credit," and urged him to call a fresh election "as soon as possible."

  • "We accept eight chairs being appointed by MPs, but not the other 12. It's the only way of fighting the notion that the Spanish judiciary is politicized"

    Mercè Caso · Barcelona chief judge

The reputation of Spanish courts was already not at its best. In the past year, there have been no shortage of controversies. For instance, the pre-trial imprisonment of Catalan leaders for organizing an independence referendum, the clearing of five men accused of gang-raping a teenager in Pamplona, and a recent ruling favoring banks and forcing customers to pay a tax on mortgages.

Five out of 10 Spaniards rate the independence of Spanish courts and judges as "bad" or "very bad," while four out of 10 approve it, according to the Eurobarometer. The study, conducted before most of the scandals unfolded, puts Spain at the bottom of the EU’s 28 member states, only ahead of Slovenia, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Croatia.

Judges in Spain went on strike on Monday to demand judicial independence be protected and more resources for courts. "We accept eight chairs being appointed by MPs, but not the other 12," said Mercè Caso, the chief judge in Barcelona. "It's the only way of fighting the notion that the Spanish judiciary is politicized. We're not the only ones saying so: it's also the Council of Europe."

Carlos Lesmes' mandate to be extended

A leadership change in the judiciary was seen as a good opportunity to bring in some fresh air and dispel the bad press. Instead, the parties’ failure to reach a compromise will automatically extend the mandate of the current president, Carlos Lesmes, who has been heavily questioned.

As Sánchez will most certainly fail to pass a new budget, he is now opening the door to a snap election next year. The renewal of the judiciary seems unlikely to take place before a new parliament is elected.

Jailed Catalan leaders request Marchena's recusal

The judiciary, meanwhile, will face an extremely delicate situation with one of its biggest challenges in recent history: the trial against pro-independence leaders.

While some have welcomed Marchena’s decision to back off from presiding over the CGPJ, pro-independence parties are not at all satisfied. The reason: he will continue to preside over the court chamber where Catalan leaders will be tried.

Jailed Catalan leaders requested Marchena’s recusal as a Supreme Court judge, but some say it’s highly unlikely that he will be removed from the case.


  • Spain's Supreme Court in Madrid (by Tània Tàpia)

  • Spain's Supreme Court in Madrid (by Tània Tàpia)