Words by Jesús Barrientos, President of the High Court of Catalonia upon receiving the 2017 AJFV Prize for Judicial Independence
“Federico Carlos Sáinz de Robles” Prize for Judicial Independence
Awarded to judges exercising in Catalonia
Alicante, 17 November 2017.
I must confess that I feel both honoured and proud today. First, because the opportunity to accept this award was given to me as President of the High Court of Catalonia and by the association I belong to; but, above all, because it allows me to reveal the immense pride of representing Catalan judges, the 772 sitting judges and magistrates and the 160 substitute judges and reserve magistrates exercising in each of the 35 courts of justice and 578 courthouses among the 49 judicial districts throughout Catalonia.
They are the ones being honoured at this ceremony. They are the ones who have been deserving of recognition and, why not just say it, also deserving of admiration from colleagues exercising outside Catalonia (look no further than the judges forums open in the Council’s intranet) as well as from professionals in the most diverse of fields, of a society that is hyper-aware of the situation we’ve faced, that we’re facing in Catalonia and, by extension, in Spain.
In all reality, there’s nothing exceptional about those of us who are judges and magistrates in Catalonia. As components of the Spanish Judicial Power and members of the same body or sole profession, we have the same concerns, the same needs and worries, we share the same excitement and desire for statutory improvements just like all Spanish judges.
Although we are here today to recognise the merit of the Catalan judges, it’s not because those merits are any different that can be seen in the actions of the same exercising judges in other territories in the same State. No. We’re all judges who are actively committed to defending the constitutional values.
The thing is, those constitutional values have been exposed in Catalonia to extreme risk, fostered and encouraged precisely by the regional institutions which should be expected to offer support and an active defence. Far from this, they have gone beyond all constitutional and statutory limits with feigned and destructive legislation, putting such determination in the application of which that they have not backed off or given way to suspensory and annulling decisions by the Constitutional Court or explicit orders of prohibition issued by courts of ordinary jurisdiction.
And in this political and social context of maximum institutional tension, the Catalan judges, who were at times perceived as the only means to constitutional legality (before finally applying art. 155 of the Spanish Constitution), each in their own role and jurisdictional competence, proved that they accepted such a role and shown daily actions that were always on par with the serious responsibility society was demanding of them.
Over these critical months, the bench that I preside over has been a wonderful observatory for the verification of compliance with this role as guarantors of citizens’ rights and freedoms and the one thing all of us, including the institutions, are submissive to – constitutional legality.
Ever since our plenary meeting on 15 September (in response to the Catalan Parliament Plenary Sessions on 6 and 7 September, approving the separation laws –referendum and legal transition-), the High Court Bench of course made the commitment to preserve the full independence of the judges and tribunals of Catalonia in the exercise of their jurisdictional duties and we made our position public in order to guarantee that all judges and magistrates in Catalonia could act responsibly and fully and exclusively subject to the Spanish Constitution and all other implementing regulations in relation to the judiciary.
We this purpose in mind, we constituted a monitoring group which, from its very creation in the week prior to 1 October, was available to the 49 senior judges and on-call judges all while placing cooperating courts on call in each judicial district. This level of demand was maintained for two weeks. It is only proper to acknowledge right now each one of the Senior Judges, the various judges, public prosecutors, court clerks and civil servants who performed the on-call service throughout this period or remained available to the cooperating bodies for their commitment and generosity in their respective positions. As public servants, they gave a lot more than was required of them by law.
It was the explicit will of the panel of judges to extend this recognition to all the judges and magistrates exercising in Catalonia irrespective of their destination site or city, body or jurisdiction. This broad scope of recognition is fully and absolutely justified as one of the risks Catalan society was exposed to was the impact on all judges, irrespective of the particular body or jurisdiction. We must recall how the disappearance of Judicial Power in Catalonia was even articulated through a regulation in favour of another judicial power of uncertain dependence and configuration.
As firm as each judge’s convictions may be on the constitutional fundamentals of the jurisdiction exercised (and Catalan judges have proven to have a solid conviction), it is humanly understandable that such a scenario of a possible and uncertain succession of powers (when designed by the institutions of the very State, such as the regional parliament and government) could lead to personal concern as well as the logical professional disturbance among those who, despite receiving such announcements, find themselves in a situation of maintaining and implementing their ordinary agenda of judicial proceedings subject to the only legality they identify with – constitutional legality.
It can be easily understood how difficult it must be in such a context to concentrate and find the serenity and courage needed to proceed with judiciary tasks in order to fulfil commitments on one’s agenda and respond to citizens’ complaints in a reasoned manner. And that’s the great merit of the Catalan judges. That’s what is so merit-worthy about their work.
Maintaining the ordinary routine of the judiciary in a context of extraordinary complexity and demand. The judges were exposed to situations of maximum pressure on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd October. On Sunday, 1 October, expecting incidents to occur (as did occur), the on-call service was maintained in all judicial districts except a few from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening despite opposition from the Department of Justice and, in many cases, following warnings of disobedience to the respective territorial directors who had denied the early opening of court buildings.
On 2 October, the Catalan government publicised the creation of a special commission (coordinated by the Regional Minister of Justice) to investigate the violation of fundamental rights on 1 October as a result of the actions and omissions attributable to the State institutions and bodies, particularly the actions of the government, public prosecutor and judiciary. Everything was upside down with the government scrutinising the judges’ work.
On 3rd October, the day of the general strike known as the “idle state”, a number of judges were prevented from entering their courthouses, even when on call. Other colleagues had to do double shifts – remain on call and do their own. In those days, judges needed to provide comfort for citizens, but they also needed to receive it. The press releases issued by all the judges associations were quite appropriate and effective, supporting the work of the judges and defending constitutional legality. The Spanish General Council of the Judiciary also took such a stand, with harsh declarations particularly attacking the Commission created 2nd October by the Catalan Generalitat government.
And we thank them for it. In particular, the President of the Spanish General Council of the Judiciary, for his direct involvement in maintaining the authority of the Catalan judges. Over those two months, he was always available to us.
There’s no doubt that the intervention of the State, through the application of art. 155 of the Spanish Constitution following approval by the Senate, allowed us all to return to certain normality in our daily tasks beyond finding ourselves in a position of having to assess the damages in the form of proceedings opened in view of the conduct displayed during that dark period which we hope will soon go down into the history of our nation. It will be up to us, therefore, to conduct these proceedings and give the citizens coming to us the answers that correspond in law. But the ascertainment, once again, that the damage and harm Catalan society has inflicted upon itself during this political battle will end up being channelled and called to account before the courts and tribunals leads us to reaffirming the trust society has always placed in its judges as guarantors of the rule of law. No doubt this societal trust in judges is fed by their loyalty to the constitutional system as the only way to effectively defend the values, rights and liberties of all.
And to finish up. As hard as it has been for the judges to experience what they have experienced over the course of these past months in Catalonia, I would like to highlight something and share a positive message in that I believe (and this is a personal opinion) it all reinforces the Judicial Power and the very State, after recurring with visible success to the unexplored territory of art. 155 of the Spanish Constitution. We can only hope that it will be inoculating against any future unilateral attempts to break co-existence as have been seen in Catalonia.
And as concerns the starring role of the judges exercising in Catalonia, I must highlight the strengths we’ve all seen in the constitutional model of Judicial Power, which was designed by the constitutional legislators as a unique Judicial Power. As much as the High Courts of Justice are seen as the culmination of the judiciary organisation in each autonomous region, it not only does not emulate the decentralisation approached as a principle of the territorial organisation of the State, it counters it. And when faced with such a challenge as the one recently experienced in Catalonia, it is precisely this model of a unique Judicial Power that has proven to be an insurmountable obstacle for its promoters.
As no legality can be effective without judges enforcing it. It seems obvious that the social gap opened up to this point in Catalonia may only be repaired through politics.
It is quite possible and even likely that this political dialogue or negotiation will lead to constitutional reform of a greater or lesser extent. Some proposals will seek to modify our organic model of judicial power. There have already been attempts in the past. And in preparation for such a scenario, keep this experience in mind as well as the relevant role of the Catalan judges as integral parts of this unique Judicial Power model.
Today, the Catalan judges are being rewarded. And by doing so, the value of our constitutional judicial power model is being acknowledged. Our most heartfelt congratulations are for them, but our gratitude is also extended to the visionary constitutional legislators.
Thank you very much.
Jesús Barrientos, President of the High Court of Catalonia.