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City Desk
28 October, 2004  
Argentina: splendor, tumult and tears

The editor’s unofficial glimpse at a Latino justice “system”

imageProduction at Justinian’s story mill is cranking-up after the editor’s return from a two-week investigatory tour of the Argentine legal system and associated life-styles.

Subscribers will be cheered to know that even as the rest of the republic’s economy is a teetering shambles, the legal sector in Buenos Aires could not be peachier.

The moneyed classes never kept much of their loot in the country, preferring to have it stashed in banks in the US or Europe. Consequently, when the peso dramatically devalued in 2002 their offshore dollars could buy at least treble the amount of the local currency.

Much the same applied to foreign multinationals with Argentine businesses.

Importantly, it meant the commercial classes could still afford lawyers and the call upon the creaking legal system remained high given the Latin propensity for double-crossing, assorted slights of hand and flagrant breaches of contract.

For instance, there are a disproportionately large number of property cases because people lease splendid city apartments and fail to pay the rent, safe in the knowledge that it will take years of soul destroying litigation before they are dislodged.

Banks rarely, if ever, lend on mortgages so settlements of purchases can take forever if they don’t fall over in a heap of law suits.

imageCommercial arrangements involve constant wrangles and shifting terms of conditions. Crime is high and given the propensity for the average Argentine male to have about four mistresses, family law is prospering.

One can spot sleek lawyers draped in camel hair coats around the justice precinct near the Teatro Colon, the ornate nineteenth century Buenos Aires opera house.

The area is a cluster of law firms, the justice department, quaint stalls of law books (pic) and fabulous eating-houses where the fraternity wolfs down enormous steaks and Argentine malbec at lunchtime.

imageThe Supreme Court (seen here) is a splendid imperial edifice that stamps the majesty of the law on the landscape. The Latin Americans have a way with architecture that evokes authority, and to this extent they are envied by judges from the common law world who increasingly have been shoehorned into terrible contemporary structures devoid of the slightest shred of dignity.

The selection of Supreme Court judges is an unusual process, which would leave our traditionalists shuddering. The President nominates, the Senate has an open meeting to deliberate on the nominee and there is a month long period of scrutiny during which the public and organizations in the community can all send in their objections.

It’s a wonder anyone gets appointed. The latest nominee, Ricardo Lorenzetti, is a rather academic lawyer from Sante Fe province and already there are complaints he has no experience as a judge. Importantly, he has plenty of experience on the international conference circuit.

He is to replace Adolfo Vazquez who was forced to resign from the court by President Kirchner under threat of impeachment. Vazquez was an appointee of the awful little squirt Carlos Menem, who had achieved what is referred to as an “automatic majority” on the court.

Menem was widely reviled for granting pardons to the leaders of the armed forces who ran the last military dictatorship and were responsible for the thousands and thousands of “disappeared”.

In fact, Kirchner is just one justice away from his own “automatic majority”, not that he need stress himself too much about achieving it as the justices seem to rule fairly consistently in line with the government’s interests.

Adolfo Vazquez says he is the victim of “ideological persecution” by left wing and human rights types. He also thinks the current court is ” a Kirchner court; it wants to be more Papist than the Pope himself because it goes even further than the government does”.

In an interview on October 16 in La Nacion the new nominee Lorenzetti set out what he wanted to achieve in suitably Kirbyesque terms:

“My goal on the court will be to find and foment a space for democratic dialogue and to consolidate the republic, which requires the effective division of powers.”

As to the latter point, he has reopened a fearsome debate by insisting that judges should pay tax, which is something they have resisted for years because to do so, they say, would violate the division of powers in the country.

Why Smiler and the boys on the High Court haven’t cottoned onto that idea is a mystery.

One of the weirder proceedings that has attracted close attention is the undoing of “illegal adoptions”. These are cases brought by the offspring of citizens who disappeared or were murdered by the military regime, only to discover that the very officers responsible for the execution of their parents had adopted them.

imageMeanwhile, over at the other end of town at Recoleta is the law school – like no other law school ever before encountered by the editor. It is an immense neo classical monstrosity (pic) and the formality of the outside must be an attempt to hide the chaos on the inside. This is the home of legal radicalism, churning out little Che Guevaras who somehow have to get in step with the wider turbulent society.

If the junketeering Australian Bar Association wanted to organise a conference in a venue that presented a few more challenges than the tourist hell of Florence, it should contemplate Buenos Aires for its next tax-deductible jamboree.

No doubt we’d see pictures in the papers back home of The Tub being challenged at midnight by huge plates of lomo and flan crme while other delegates tangoed their tootsies off.