MEXICO CITY (CN) — Heading into the final year of a six-year term, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently announced the shortlist for his fifth Supreme Court justice appointment. But deep partisan divisions in Mexico’s legislature could lead to the unprecedented situation of him being able to choose the next justice without congressional approval.
A vacancy will soon open up on the bench of Mexico’s high court after Justice Arturo Zaldívar announced his resignation last week. The shortlist of candidates that López Obrador presented for the Senate’s consideration this week immediately triggered censure and warnings from critics and civil society groups.
The candidates — not one of whom has ever worked as a judge — threaten judicial independence due to their political and personal proximity to the president, critics say.
“It’s worrying that president López Obrador’s nominees to the Supreme Court seem to have been chosen primarily because of their close relationships with the president rather than for their professional qualifications,” said Juanita Goebertus, director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, in a statement to Courthouse News. “Ensuring that high-level judges are independent and impartial is crucial to protecting human rights.”
The Forum of Constitutionalists of Mexico, a trade association of constitutional lawyers, also opposed the nominations on the same grounds.
“The mission is very clear: destroy the Supreme Court,” the forum said in a recent post on X, formerly Twitter.
Two of the candidates, Lenia Batres Guadarrama and María Estela Ríos González, have direct political ties to López Obrador and his ruling Morena party. Both currently serve on the executive branch’s legal advisory council: Ríos is council chair and Batres is an adjunct adviser.
Batres is also the sister of Martí Batres, who took over as Mexico City mayor when Claudia Sheinbaum stepped down to pursue her 2024 presidential campaign as a candidate for Morena, and she was a founding member of Morena in 2014.
Ríos has over two decades of history with López Obrador, having served as a legal adviser in his cabinet when he was mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2006. Some have said she is not eligible for a justiceship. Holders of federal secretaryships are not allowed to serve as justices, and legal scholars have said that her post at the head of the executive legal advisory council is equivalent to such a position.
The third candidate is Bertha Martha Alcalde Luján, sister of Luisa María Alcalde Luján, López Obrador’s secretary of the Interior. She currently serves as legal adviser at the federal sanitation risk commission Cofepris.
Legal scholars likewise expressed concern over the president’s choices to replace Zaldívar and the situation’s possible effects on the separation of powers and democracy at large in Mexico.
“They have shown — particularly two of them: Ríos and Batres — that they are very clearly partisan in the performance of their duties,” said Sergio López Ayllón, a research professor in the law department at the Mexico City-based think tank CIDE.
Their lack of judicial experience also concerned him.
“None of them has a desirable profile for a Supreme Court justice, neither for their professional career nor for recognition in the legal, academic or judicial environment,” he said in a phone interview. “Not one has a particularly outstanding CV.”
López Ayllón has worked with Alcalde in the past and had “the best impression” of her from that experience, but he did not believe that she has worked long enough or gained the proper experience necessary for the job.