The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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My Impressions of Judge Garzón
Published on February 28, 2012

Two weeks after the ruling of the Spanish Supreme Court that convicted Baltasar Garzón and led to his disbarment as a magistrate, the media is close to unanimous in portraying the case as a Francoist assault on the democratic institutions in Spain and the revenge of malicious peers, envious of Garzón’s international standing.  

In this plethora of vehement debates, what is missing is a clear, dispassionate analysis of the ruling that does not conflate the other two cases which have been carried out in parallel. Garzón was condemned for illegally ordering jailhouse wiretaps of detainees talking to their lawyers. Although the Spanish system is very different from the American, both share the same core principles. The world still remembers the public reaction and the consequences of the illegal wiretapping by President Nixon in Watergate. It has to be added that the perpetrator in the Spanish case was precisely the custodian of the law and that the interception undermined one of the key elements of our judicial system. As for the charge on bribery, it was dropped due to the statute of limitations. On the remaining charge—linked to his opening a case against Fracoist atrocities committed during and after the civil war of 1936–39, in disregard of the amnesty law of 1977—Garzón has just been found not guilty. The three rulings came from the same tribunal.

This is neither the time nor the place to delve into the specifics of the Court’s reasoning. However, I have always seen Garzón’s behavior, often described as self-aggrandizing, as a good illustration of the Fable of the Bees. And here is why.

Baltarsar Garzón won international fame by riding the wave of universal jurisdiction, the principle that certain crimes are so heinous as to transcend national boundaries.  His legacy bears the mark of the important work he did in advancing that cause, mainly through the Pinochet case. I also bear witness to his contribution to the fight against terrorism in Spain, where he demonstrated both intellectual prowess and personal courage. During my years in politics, I appreciated the Garzón who pushed the limits of universal jurisdiction and who was instrumental in the many battles against the Basque terrorist group ETA.

However, I met Garzón a long time before, in the early 1990s, soon after he had been appointed to the position that would bring him fame and glory in Madrid, as Garzón was in the process of becoming a celebrity judge. Since that time, Garzón has gained a reputation in Spanish professional circles for the formal weaknesses of his cases—often overruled—emanating from the fact he would take liberties with the requirements of procedure that are the very foundation of the legal order.

At the time, I was a practicing lawyer and was tasked, as member of the Board of Madrid’s Bar, to uphold the rights of defense lawyers who, in his first high-profile drug-related case “Necora,” had filed a complaint arguing that the judge was not respecting the procedural guarantees of the defense. I spent weeks in my robe attending the hearings, taking notes frantically, and subsequently speaking with him, witnessing how he first began his signature style of flirtation with the press in a way that I found inappropriate for a judge. 

As in the Mandeville Fable, Garzón’s “public virtue”—that is, his contribution to the advancement of universal jurisdiction and to the fight against terrorism—has a less appealing and considerably less well-known side. Garzón’s strength, and ironically his weakness, is a far-reaching vision of the law that allows him to rightfully push its boundaries but is also the source of convenient justification for him to ignore those boundaries when they are perceived as an obstacle.

Ana Palacio is a former Spanish Foreign Minister, former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank, and a member of the AI editorial board.