Controversial nominee approved for Mexican Supreme Court

Despite complaints and criticisms, Mexican Senate approves envoy to U.S. to be new Supreme Court justice

One senator called him the great national spy. A commentator said it was like appointing Donald Rumsfeld to the Supreme Court. More than 50,000 scholars, lawyers and others signed a petition against him.

And yet Eduardo Medina Mora, until now Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, easily won approval in the Mexican Senate to take a seat on the nation’s highest court. His term will last 15 years.

After four hours of debate and angry speeches Tuesday night, Medina Mora received 83 votes, four more than the two-thirds majority of the Senate required to be named to the court. He was sworn in immediately.

Challenges to Medina Mora’s appointment centered on numerous issues, from his lack of background in the judiciary and ineffectiveness as a prosecutor, to his association with a long string of controversies in three successive administrations.

Most of all, Medina Mora was attacked for his close ties to President Enrique Peña Nieto, who nominated him.

His appointment, the critics argued, would dilute the independence of the 11-member court, especially at a time the government is increasingly under scrutiny for corruption cases. Weakening the court undermines the struggle to improve security and the rule of law in Mexico, analysts and opposition lawmakers argued.

“This is a return to the imperial presidency,” said Sen. Dolores Padierna of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

Sen. Javier Corral, of the conservative National Action Party, said approval of Medina Mora represented a gutting of the court’s autonomy and “a challenge to justice” in Mexico.

Two more seats on the court will come open this year.

All of this reminded many of an old practice by Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, called the dedazo, the “big finger,” when one PRI president after another would designate his successor during seven decades of uninterrupted, single-party rule. The PRI was finally ousted from the presidency in 2000 but returned with Peña Nieto's election in 2012.

In the waning years of the PRI's longtime hold on power and after 2000, the formation of a more professional and independent Supreme Court was seen as one of the hallmarks of Mexico’s emerging democracy.

Lately, it has become a favored tactic of certain democracies in Latin America -- Venezuela and Nicaragua come to mind -- of a president stacking state institutions, such as the courts and election commissions, with supporters.

Medina Mora, after his swearing-in, told the Senate he would rule “with justice and a stately vision.”

Before he was ambassador to Washington, Medina Mora headed Mexico’s domestic intelligence agency under the lackluster government of President Vicente Fox. Later he was attorney general under President Felipe Calderon at a time Mexico was plunging into a war with drug cartels that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a researcher at the Center for Economic Investigation and Teaching think tank who led the petition drive against Medina Mora, said his nomination showed an administration insensitive to criticism and the public’s demands for more accountability from its leaders, not less.

“It makes the president seem tone deaf and unable to realize the magnitude of the crisis of legitimacy that the government is facing,” Madrazo said in an interview. “This nomination is a slap in the face to what our citizens are demanding from the government.”

He noted that Medina’s background -- especially as attorney general under Calderon -- places him within a hawkish wing of the government at a time when human rights abuses and torture were soaring and successful prosecutions were scarce.

Medina Mora has also been accused by a group of lawyers of having knowledge of the notorious “Fast and Furious” program, the botched scheme in which a U.S. agency allowed drug traffickers to funnel high-powered weapons into Mexico. Medina Mora has denied involvement.

“All of my actions have been sustained by good faith and in fulfillment of the law,” Medina Mora said after being sworn in.

For more news out of Mexico, Latin America, follow @TracyKWilkinson

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