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Mexico Supreme Court elects first woman as chief justice

Legal scholars hailed the magnitude of the decision, highlighting the significance of a woman leading the highest court in the land and extolling the new chief justice’s impartiality and sound legal philosophy.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico’s Supreme Court made history Monday when it voted a woman to head the tribunal for the first time.

The court’s 11 justices voted 6-5 to place Norma Lucía Piña Hernández as chief justice for a term of four years. Piña will also serve as the head of Mexico’s Federal Judiciary Council during her term. 

Upon assuming the office, Piña said that she was honored, committed and morally responsible to represent the judiciary “with conviction and dedication, with passion and honesty, as I have tried to do the last 34 years of my life inside this great institution to which I owe and love so much.”

Piña also highlighted the importance of having broken a significant glass ceiling in Mexico’s government.

“We will strive every day for a more just, more equal society, without violence against women,” she said. 

Legal scholars also hailed the magnitude of the decision, highlighting the significance of a woman leading the highest court in the land. 

“It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of this day,” said Javier Martín Reyes, a law professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) who called Piña “juridically solid and politically independent.” 

Piña takes office at a particularly busy time for Mexico’s judiciary. The 2020s have seen much more legal activity than the previous decade, largely thanks to the hotly debated policies of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The branch now faces the largest case backlog in its history.

Political independence is precisely what the Supreme Court needs after the questionable relationship between the judicial and executive branches during the term of her predecessor, Arturo Zaldívar. A decision on López Obrador’s energy reform this past April — one of which Zaldívar voted in favor, Piña against — raised serious questions about the court’s impartiality. 

“I think we’ll see a chief justice who is more respectful of the separation of powers and much more collegiality within the court,” said Reyes.

Chief Justice Norma Lucía Piña Hernández speaks at a conference on Oct. 11, 2022, in this photo taken from the Facebook page of Mexico's Supreme Court. (Facebook via Courthouse News)

Like López Obrador, Zaldívar has an active media presence that tended to focus attention on himself, rather than the court as an institution, during his term. This personalistic approach to serving as chief justice, Reyes said, “isolated the rest of the court from some of the most important decisions.”

Reyes did, however, add the footnote that Piña is still just one of 11 votes on the bench. Sergio López Ayllón, a research professor in the law department at the government-owned think tank CIDE, echoed this caveat, noting the complex nature of the court, and expressed doubt over how much influence Piña could have on its orientation.

"The chief justice can direct, but she cannot determine the votes of the rest of the justices," said López. "The chief justice will not generate more or less impartiality on her own."

Still, after the buddy-buddy relationship he had with Zaldívar, López Obrador may see his influence over the judiciary diminish during the new chief justice's term. Piña was nominated to the court in 2015 by President Enrique Peña Nieto, and has voted against cases involving the president’s agenda more than any of the four other candidates for the position.

Scandal surrounding one of those four opponents, López Obrador appointee Yasmín Esquivel Mossa, likely played a role in Piña’s win Monday. Esquivel, who has supported the president’s agenda more than any of the other candidates, was accused of plagiarizing her bachelor's thesis at UNAM in 1987.

Whether or not the accusations are true — UNAM is currently investigating the claim — is now moot, as far as Esquivel’s designs on the chair in the middle of the court are concerned. She received just two votes in the first round of voting, and only one in the second.

“She literally ended up alone,” said Reyes.

Before the vote, Esquivel reiterated her claim to the authorship of her thesis and refused to heed a petition from legislators and political leaders to step away from the contest.

“A judge shouldn’t allow him or herself to be intimidated no matter how fierce the attack or aggression,” she said. “We want judicious, clean, transparent people in whom we see no room for corruption or the complicity of any member of this branch of government in which society has put its trust.”

Although he is no longer at the head of the court, Zaldívar could still generate some drama in 2023. Legal scholars widely believe that the former chief justice has plans for a political career and that he may not even finish out his 15-year term on the bench, which ends in 2024. 

Some see his rulings, his broad social media presence and his proximity to the public as the roots of this future political career, and warn that his premature withdrawal from the court could have negative consequences for jurisprudence both in Mexico and abroad. 

“It would not send a positive signal for him to resign his post before finishing out his term and try to begin a political career,” said Juan Manuel Ureiro, a senior researcher at the Mexico City-based public policy consultancy Integralia. “Neither here, nor in any other part of the world.”

Chief Justice Piña, Justice Esquivel and Justice Zaldívar declined multiple requests for interviews.

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