For the first time since Catalonia’s home rule was restored Spain’s Supreme Court has moved to disqualify a Catalan president while still in office. The decision was taken unanimously by a panel of five judges, as announced on Monday morning by online newspaper El Español. In the afternoon Catalonia’s High Court of Justice enacted the ruling and formally informed the parties involved, effectively removing Quim Torra from office. The ban comes following Torra’s refusal to comply with an order from Spain’s Central Election Board (JEC) which instructed him to remove a banner hanging on the Catalan government building in support of the Catalan political prisoners during the April 2019 Spanish election campaign. Now Spain’s Supreme Court has fully endorsed the verdict of Catalonia’s High Court: an eighteen month ban from holding public office and a €30,000 fine for having disobeyed the JEC’s orders “repeatedly and contemptuously”. The ruling has been handed down by the court’s second Chamber and was drafted by Justice Juan Ramón Berdugo.
As anticipated by this newspaper, the court’s decision came on Monday after a hearing in Madrid on 17 September, when the Catalan president chose to appear in court. Torra’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, outlined the reasons why he thought the Supreme Court should uphold the appeal lodged by the Catalan leader and overturn the verdict of Catalonia’s High Court of Justice. However, the court was not persuaded and it has ruled that Torra did indeed disobey the Central Election Board and must, therefore, be removed from office.
The court argues that the appeal does not concern “the display of symbols and banners associated with a particular political view”; in other words, this is not a debate on the freedom of expression. According to the ruling, “the purpose of this procedure is not to examine the conviction of the defendant from the point of view of free speech, as he is at liberty to voice or express his political views as any free citizen. Instead, we are concerned with him doing so during an election campaign whilst ignoring the instructions of the Central Election Board. It is the JEC’s duty to ensure that elections are fair and transparent and, therefore, the Board banned any display of symbols and banners”. The ruling goes on to say that Torra “violated the principle of neutrality which the administration must adhere to as a general rule, in violation of the specific orders issued by the JEC”.
In its 133 page ruling the second chamber of the Spanish top court stresses that Torra was aware of his disobedience and showed “a clear willingness to contravene” the instructions of the JEC. The court dismisses every argument presented by the Catalan leader’s defence and states that the JEC is “a higher body” and, as such, it falls under the provision made in Article 410 of Spain’s criminal code on the crime of disobedience. The argument put forward by Torra’s lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, is that the Catalan president is in higher hierarchical position than the JEC, but the ruling states that this interpretation is biased: it establishes that the JEC is the highest authority during an election campaign, whereas the president of a regional government “has no say in the matter whatsoever”.
The court also dismisses Torra’s claim that several members of the JEC were biased, as was the court that found him guilty. One of the points made by Torra’s lawyer was that the president of Catalonia’s Hight Court, Jesús María Barrientos, stood up and left a public event hosted by Barcelona’s Bar Association when the phrase “political prisoners” was uttered. In fact, the Supreme Court argues that the penalty imposed is “proportionate” and does not admit any comparisons with precedents where only a fine was imposed. It emphasises that the ban on the Catalan leader includes any public office at regional, European, Spanish, provincial and local level.
Interim government with limited powers led by VP Aragonès
A new, uncertain time has begun for Catalonia’s institutions, as the situation is unprecedented. As reported by this newspaper, the legal service of the Catalan presidency has readied a report that draws up the legal itinerary to be followed, giving vice president Pere Aragonès the power to lead the interim government from now on. The executive branch, however, will have limited powers because once the president has stepped down, so does the cabinet.
Aragonès will have all the president’s powers except the prerogative to call an election, requesting a vote of no-confidence and appointing or dismissing cabinet ministers. Other than those, he will concentrate the powers of representing the Catalan administration, the State (in Catalonia) and coordinating the government. Even though that will be so from a formal point of view, coalition partners JxCat and ERC have agreed that Aragonès will share the limelight with government spokesperson Meritxell Budó, the minister for the Presidency.