By KELIN DILLON
As Mexico’s political representatives gathered together to celebrate the 106th Anniversary of the Mexican Constitution at Queretaro’s Teatro de la República on Sunday, Feb. 5, tensions between Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and newly elected Supreme Court (SCJN) President Norma Piña came to a head as the two’s distinctly different interpretations of the constitution clashed publicly for the very first time.
A career judge and strict constitutionalist, Piña made Mexican history when she became the first woman to ever be elected as SCJN president on Jan. 2. Piña notably beat out fellow female candidate and López Obrador favorite Yasmín Esquivel for the position, a feat made possible after Esquivel was essentially disqualified from the race following a public scandal that revealed the purported plagiarism of her undergraduate thesis during her time at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
AMLO, who’s made his intentions to bend the constitution to his will clear in the past, was already expected to receive Piña and her by-the-book approach to the constitution frigidly after Esquivel’s loss; however, the events of Sunday’s constitutional anniversary – and the very first meeting between the duo since Piña’s January election – put the clear differences between the federal executive and the SCJN president on full public display.
For her part, Piña used her speech at the ceremony as an opportunity to advocate for Mexican judges to solely be appointed based on prior qualifications rather than arbitrary means, an opinion that experts have since characterized as a clear criticism of both AMLO’s controversial so-called ‘plan b’ electoral reforms and the López Obrador administration’s track record of nominating the executive’s judicially inexperienced favorites to the courts.
“Diversity among those of us who administer justice is not only inevitable, it is desirable,” said Piña at the time. “It is healthy and necessary to weigh the activity of judges by virtue of the resolutions they issue and never, ever, lose sight of judicial independence, that of the judges and of that of one of the constitutive powers of the republic. An independent judiciary is a pillar of our democracy, it is the legacy that our fundamental law transmits to us.”
“Judicial independence is not a privilege of judges, it is the principle that guarantees an adequate administration of justice to make the liberties and equality of Mexicans effective. Judicial independence is the main guarantee of impartiality of the judiciary, always in benefit of society,” continued Piña, advocating for the strengthening of Mexico’s independent institutions – a stark contrast to López Obrador’s demonstrated desire to cripple the autonomous National Electoral Institute (INE) through plan b’s implementation.
The SCJN president went on to discourage the attending politicians from getting complacent in their work by only participating in “sterile meetings” with “beautiful oratory exercises.”
Following the ceremony, AMLO’s public spokesperson lashed out against Piña on Twitter by claiming “not everyone respected the protocol of the ceremony” with an attached photo of the SCJN head sitting down as the rest of the ceremony’s attendees stood up in the presence of López Obrador.
Despite the López Obrador camp’s demonstrated desire to characterize Piña as disrespectful, the spokesperson’s pointed tweet failed to acknowledge that Piña did in fact stand for AMLO as soon as the master of ceremonies officially began the constitutional celebration, and that Piña similarly shook the executive’s hand inside the event.
While Sunday’s events were only the start to what’s expected to be a continually contentious relationship between Piña and the AMLO administration, Piña’s public expression of her deep-seated commitment to the Mexican constitution sets the stage for constitutional battles over plan b between Mexico’s judicial and executive branches in the months to come.