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25th Sep 2022

Spain's Sanchez in storm over judicial appointments bill

  • Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez. 'Spain is taking a step back in fundamental requisites for the independence of the judiciary', according to the European Association of Judges (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Spain's socialist-led coalition has proposed changing how members of the country's top judicial body, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ), are appointed - triggering a political and judicial storm about the independence of the institution.

The CGPJ, established by the Spanish Constitution, is the body that ensures the independence of courts and judges. It consists of the president of the Supreme Court, 12 judges or magistrates and eight of lawyers or other jurists of "recognised prestige".

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The appointment of all these members is subject to a qualified majority of three-fifths in the parliament - but such a majority was impossible to reach after the last two general elections, held in 2019.

As a result, the CGPJ has been exercising its functions on a temporary basis since December 2018 - with experts warning that any prolonging of this situation could discredit the institution.

With the new bill, announced last week, the need for a three-fifths majority remains - but it also adds the possibility of a second round of voting, 48 hours later, that would only require an absolute majority.

Should the bill pass, the current deadlock could be unblocked. But the Spanish executive will have to convince Brussels that the reforms do not undermine the independence of the judiciary.

"The reform of judicial systems in member states should always be done in consultation with all relevant parties, including the Venice Commission," a commission spokesperson said.

"Member states must follow the EU's standards to guarantee that judicial independence is not endangered," he added.

In last month's rule of law report, the European Commission stressed the importance of reducing the influence of legislative or executive power over the judiciary to strengthen judicial independence.

The chapter on Spain addressed the renewal of the CGPJ, stressing it was important to ensure that the council is not perceived as "vulnerable to politicisation".

For its part, the European Association of Judges is concerned that "Spain is taking a step back in fundamental requisites for the independence of [the] judiciary".

"Instead of taking advantage of this legislative opportunity to reform the system of appointment, returning to the previous system where judges members of Judicial Council were elected by their peers, alternative which was timely proposed, the present option will increase the risk of undue political influence," they said in a statement.

Additionally, the head of the opposition Spanish conservative Popular Party, Pablo Casado, has asked the commission to "evaluate" the reform of the CGPJ.

"It is unacceptable in terms of respect for the rule of law that, when warned of the risk of politicisation of the governing body of the judiciary, the response of the Spanish government it is precisely to remove the barriers that prevent the partisan election of judges and magistrates," he said in a letter sent to the commissioner of justice Didier Reynders last Thursday.

After the European summit, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez said that he will withdraw the bill if Casado unblocks the negotiations for the renewal of the CGPJ.

Poland complains of double standards

Meanwhile, the Polish government has used the controversy to ask the commission if it will also announce its intentions to issue sanctions against Spain as it has done with Poland for its judicial reform.

"The judiciary system is internal a matter for the member states, and every EU country must be treated the same, double standards are a violation of the European rule of law," the Polish deputy minister of foreign affairs, Pawel Jablonski, tweeted last week.

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