The confirmation that Mariano Cúneo Libarona will serve as Javier Milei’s Minister of Justice is the first step in a series of challenges for the incoming president in an area that is crucial for his political future.
Milei met Cúneo, a criminal lawyer, on Alejandro Fantino’s TV show, where Milei rose to fame as an irate guest commentator. The lawyer was also the legal advisor for America Corporation, the business group belonging to Milei’s early backer Eduardo Eurnekian. Cúneo has now become the face of a project that aims to overhaul relations with the judiciary, abandoning confrontations and providing it with autonomy (mostly in financial terms).
This is music to the ears of the courts, who see themselves as alien to the future turmoil and don’t identify with the “caste” targeted by the president-elect. Inside the judicial hallways, the first reactions to his win talk of a turning point — as well as a question mark about how his alleged respect for judicial independence will actually materialize.
For the moment, the Supreme Court impeachment, upon which a ruling is due in the coming days, could be the election results’ first victim: it now seems inexorably destined to wither on the vine.
Milei will begin his administration with a series of strategic posts to fill, an inheritance from Alberto Fernández’s neglected judicial agenda. All require a qualified majority in the Senate, so they may become part of larger bargaining packages.
Until December 2024, he will have just one Supreme Court seat to fill. After that, another will become vacant when Juan Carlos Maqueda turns 75, the age limit for judges to serve. However, the Supreme Court is also the first institution that has shown Milei its teeth in the face of any plans to overstep the boundaries of the National Constitution. They did this with dollarization and with a more explicit message calling for national unity. The spokesman was Horacio Rosatti, but he was backed by a decisive majority. The relationship is still a work in progress, but has already opened communication channels and an early approval for Cúneo.
Milei’s chosen minister is a Dean of the School of Legal and Social Sciences of the Museo Social Argentino University (UMSA). The head of the law degree at that school is María José Rodríguez, an active organizer of Cúneo’s academic and preparatory road show. With her expertise in administrative law, she could be a key figure in his potential justice cabinet. But Rodríguez was also justice secretary during Rosatti’s stint as justice minister during Néstor Kirchner’s administration. She was his second in command. It is an excellent point of contact.
Cúneo comes from a family of attorneys with well-oiled connections in Comodoro Py, which he has nurtured with relative tidiness since the 1990s, when his name was attached to a series of scandals ranging from the AMIA case to Yomagate to the Coppola case. He will fulfill his father’s dream of reaching the top seat of the justice ministry, but he is also backed by his family’s powerful law firm, which he runs along with his siblings. Several judges referred to him as someone they knew well and who, despite being in a foreign environment, could easily connect with the Federal Administrative Contentious jurisdiction, the courts that regulate governance, which Milei should pay special attention to when designing his reforms so they can successfully overcome any potential legal injunctions.
The Council of Magistrates, the body which selects and removes judges, appears to be shielded from intervention by Milei’s La Libertad Avanza coalition because the distribution of positions doesn’t allow any representatives from the winning party, not even as a second minority. Milei will have to turn to his alliance with PRO to have direct influence there. What’s more, for now the Senate is hostile territory for the approval of these positions, which require a complex nomination process. Without consensus, it’s going to be an uphill struggle, so Mauricio Macri’s potential support — via his former justice minister Germán Garavano as an outside counselor — may become relevant.
The vacant seat in the Supreme Court is the most visible one, along with the Attorney General position. (In the latter role, Eduardo Casal continues to break the record for the longest-ever interim appointment.) But the Public Defender has been vacant for over a decade, as well as a long list of vacant positions in different courts that were left in a limbo by successive governments. The relationship with the provinces, in turn, conditions the senators’ endorsement for those appointments. It’s a delicate house of cards.
Once again, the judiciary’s greatest fear is another dispute over judges’ retirement regime, a policy that blitzed the judiciary’s relation with Fernández’s government and had zero fiscal impact. Several judges have already written their resignation letters, paying attention to the next administration’s plans on the matter.
The other breaking point is the eternal project of transferring aspects of national jurisdiction to Buenos Aires City. At present, crimes committed in the capital are handled by national courts, unlike the provinces, where they are tried in local courts. This change is resisted by every judges’ group, but coincides with libertarian values, mostly because of its cost for the national government. It is still too early to say how this will evolve, because it could become an open war that could cause lasting damage to Milei’s relationship with the judiciary.