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Paying for justice…

14 August 2018

The Mexican Constitution is too often a “wish list” of things the state ought to do (or… when it comes to human rights, ought NOT to do), but includes provisions meant to correct specific problems which sometimes creates a new problem years later. One oddball provision in Article 123 of the 1917 Constitution absolutely forbids paying employees of other companies at a bar or cafe (I imagine it was to keep the workers from being “invited” to a friendly poker game set up by their employer). OK, I used to pay the teachers, when I was an administrator for a “business English” school at Sandborns… but not in the restaurant. Take it to the Supreme Court.

That court though, is getting itself knotted up in a constitutional issue related to their own paychecks. Benito Juárez — who had been a Supreme Court Justice himself — had known first-hand how easily it was for the executive branch to control the courts through the power of the purse. While it wouldn’t completely free the courts from executive meddling, by specifying in the constitution that “The remuneration received for their services by the ministers of the Supreme Court, by the circuit magistrates and by the district judges may not be reduced during their term of office” [Article 94],at least a judge ruling the “wrong way” couldn’t suddenly find himself (in Benito’s day… him or her self today) left with no income.

Perfectly reasonable in Juárez’ day, but the new administration came in on a platform promising “austerity” and reigning in the high salaries and perks enjoyed by high level public officials. The incoming president has promised to cut his own salary from 370,000 pesos a month (plus perks) to a moderate 108,000 … still, a very high salary for Mexico, but then… he is President of the Republic, and under Civil Service law, no public official can receive a salary higher than the President’s… cutting the President’s salary any further would make it next to impossible to lure the best and the brightest in the private sector to take up a public service position. Ah… but those judges. The Chief Justice earns about 400,000 pesos a month (more than the outgoing president), and the 10 other justices all earn over 300,000 … plus receive generous benefits.

Lopez Obrador’s “Chief of Staff”… and presumed Interior Minister, Olga Sánchez Cordero, is herself a retired Supreme Court justice. While I don’t think she’s a greed-head and just looking out for herself (and her hefty retirement pension… 80% of her former salary, for life), but the media is full of columns and cartoons deriding the “greedy” judges. While shaming them into taking a voluntary pay cut might work with some, one can expect the court will be discussing whether their generous perks (an army of clerks and assistants, cars and chauffeurs, full life and health insurance coverage beyond the national health plan, and on and on and on) count as “renumeration”. Then again, the clerks and chauffeurs and cooks are civil servants, not (technically… maybe) paid on behalf of the judges, so the number of assistants assigned to each judge could be cut (or the judges could hire their own assistants out of their salary) or… as I saw proposed today, just cutting the number of Supreme Court judges from eleven to seven… saving about 40% on salaries.

On the other hand, with justice reforms requiring more judges and courts… perhaps incoming judges could earn a lower salary and the remaining judges “persuaded” to retire.

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