Mexico’s Supreme Court has elected a female president to lead the nation’s highest judicial body for the first time.
Following a six-to-five vote on Monday, Justice Norma Lucia Pina was sworn in for a four-year term as president of the court, which she has promised to keep independent.
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“Judicial independence is indispensable in resolving conflicts between the branches of government,” Pina said on Monday. “My main proposal is to work to build majorities, leaving aside my personal vision.”
Pina’s election could bring the court into greater confrontation with the administration of Mexico’s left-wing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whom Pina has sparred with over issues such as energy policy.
Already, Lopez Obrador’s relationship with the nation’s highest court is strained. The president has been outspoken in challenging the Supreme Court, particularly after the court blocked a number of his policies.
In November, for example, Lopez Obrador accused the court of siding with white-collar criminals when it struck down part of his “jail, no bail” policy, which required mandatory pre-trial detention for defendants accused of crimes like tax fraud. “What tremendous shamelessness,” he said, denouncing the justices.
Mexico’s Supreme Court holds elections for a new president every four years. With outgoing Chief Justice Arturo Zaldivar set to finish his term on December 31, Lopez Obrador had thrown his weight behind another justice, Yasmin Esquivel, in the hope of seeing a more sympathetic leader elected to lead the Supreme Court.
But Esquivel’s candidacy was overshadowed by scandal when a December news report alleged that she had plagiarised her college thesis. Esquivel’s paper, presented in 1987, was reportedly identical to one submitted a year earlier, though she maintains the earlier thesis copied her work.
The public university where Esquivel obtained a bachelor’s degree is still investigating the case.
Lopez Obrador attacked the allegations against Esquivel as politically motivated. He said on Monday that the country’s judicial system had been “eclipsed by money, by economic power”.
Pina’s election, meanwhile, was welcomed by members of the opposition, with conservative politicians like Kenia López Rabadán applauding her appointment.
“Faced with a president who violates the Constitution, now more than ever the Court must show independence, impartiality, objectivity and professionalism,” López Rabadán wrote on Twitter.
Some officials close to Lopez Obrador have also welcomed Pina’s election.
“Now is the time of human rights, the time for women,” said Senator Olga Cordero, Lopez Obrador’s former interior secretary, in a post on social media.
Pina, who will oversee the country’s entire judicial branch, has defended Mexico’s efforts to transition to renewable energy. That has put her at odds with Lopez Obrador, who promoted a plan to bring the energy sector under the control of the national power utility Comision Nacional de Electricidad (CFE) and the state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).
Accusing his predecessors of implementing policies that favoured private companies, Lopez Obrador had sought to make greater state control over Mexico’s energy sector a cornerstone of his economic agenda.
But his ambitions have faced barriers in Mexico’s Supreme Court. The court invalidated key portions of his energy plan, including one that gave CFE priority in connecting power plants to the energy grid.
In its ruling, the court invoked a constitutional obligation to cut the state’s carbon footprint.
Lopez Obrador’s energy policies have also brought him into dispute with the United States, which complained that Mexico’s policies put US-based companies at a disadvantage and violate the region’s trade agreements. Canada has made similar claims.
The international dispute led to the resignation of Mexico’s economy minister in October, amid fears that the complaint could result in Mexico facing punitive tariffs.