Spanish Judges Block Senate Debate to Replace Them

Conservatives go out of their way to avoid a progressive court.

Constitutional Court Madrid Spain
Constitutional Court in Madrid, Spain at night (Europa Press)

Conservatives have plunged Spain into what Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez describes as “an unprecedented situation in our democracy” and Catalonia’s El Nacional calls “the biggest institutional challenge between powers in Spain since the attempted coup d’état of 1981.”

“You have silenced parliament,” Sánchez told opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo on Wednesday, who convinced a majority of the Constitutional Court’s justices to block a Senate debate about reforms that would allow Sánchez to replace four of them.

The six justices in the majority were all appointed by Feijóo’s People’s Party. The five progressive justices sided with Sánchez, a social democrat.

According to Germany’s Die Zeit, it is the first time since the return of democracy to Spain that the Constitutional Court has intervened in the legislative process.

Opposition has blocked Sánchez’ nominees

Since Sánchez became prime minister in 2018, the right-wing opposition has vetoed all his judicial nominations, which require supermajorities in both chambers of parliament.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Sánchez proposed to reduce the required majority for Constitutional Court appointments down from three-fifths.

The proposal passed the lower house with the support of left-wing and Basque and Catalan separatist parties.

The same coalition abolished the crimes for which Catalonia’s leading separatists were prosecuted when the People’s Party was last in power. Sánchez had already pardoned those found guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds by organizing an independence referendum in defiance of the Constitutional Court.

Feijóo on Wednesday accused Sánchez of “perfecting his obedience to the Catalan independence movement.”

Conservatives are alarmed

Catalan nationalism has become the primary motivator of the Spanish right. Whereas Sánchez hopes concessions to the Catalans will convince a majority to remain in Spain, conservatives smell treason and believe the only way to prevent Catalan secession is to crack down.

Conservatives are also alarmed by Sánchez’ expansion of abortion rights, legalization of euthanasia and recognition of transgenders. Some cling to the hope that the Constitutional Court might overturn those reforms.

Judges refuse to recuse

The right may be able to outsmart Sánchez for another year, when elections are due. Polls predict a People’s Party victory. To many Spanish voters, concessions to Catalans are worse than a judicial power grab.

That would require four justices — three conservatives, one progressive — to remain in office for another year. Their mandates expired in June.

The government had asked those justices whose mandates were affected by the reforms to recuse themselves from hearing Feijóo’s challenge but they refused, in effect extending their terms to vote against their replacement.