Mexico's President Steps Up Battles With Nation's Courts

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has stepped up a campaign of interfering with the nation's courts after they blocked some of his policy initiatives.

This week the president and his staff unleashed a flurry of accusations against judges, accusing some of working for his opponents.

One federal judge drew the president's wrath by issuing an injunction against López Obrador's move to limit private renewable and gas-fired energy plants, and a government plan to fingerprint cellphone users.

Assistant Public Safety Secretary Ricardo Mejía called him a "bought" and "servile" judge, and López Obrador has asked the country's judicial review board to investigate him.

This week, López Obrador also championed a move to extend the term of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, an apparent violation of the Constitution, which says the chief justice is elected by other members of the court for one four-year term.

López Obrador said he wants current Chief Justice Arturo Zaldivar to remain because he considers him to be honest.

The row with the judicial branch comes as López Obrador suffers a legal backlash against his campaign to cement the government's role in the economy.

The president argues the limits on private power companies are needed to protect the state-owned electrical utility, and that fingerprinting cellphone users is needed to fight crimes like extortion and kidnapping, which are often committed using phones.

Opponents argue the power restrictions violate constitutional guarantees of free competition, and that the government could abuse personal data it collects from cellphone users.

This week Congress has also approved a López Obrador initiative allowing the government to seize private gas stations or fuel terminals in case of "imminent danger to national security, energy security or the economy," and give them to state-owned oil company to run.

Many fear that will lead to de-facto expropriations, and that measure, too, will probably be challenged in court.

It all appeared likely to lead to a crisis for Mexico's never-very-strong system of checks and balances, in a country where the executive branch has long held sway.

But experts say the crisis doesn't so much involve a more activist judicial branch, or a more head-strong presidency.

Rather, they say, the root of the current problem may be a weak legislative branch. Congress is currently controlled by López Obrador's Morena party, whose legislators have unquestioningly approved a series of measures that are unlikely to hold up in court challenges.

In an interview with the newspaper El Universal, Congressman Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, one of the few dissidents in Morena, said the ruling party "has lost its democratic vocation. We have a responsibility not to follow one single voice."