MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s president escalated a conflict with the judiciary on Tuesday, calling the country’s supreme court judges the “best paid public servants in the world,” after the tribunal froze plans to impose pay cuts on the civil service.
On Friday, the Supreme Court said it had suspended a law stipulating no public servant can earn more than President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has slashed his own pay to 108,000 pesos ($5,331) a month, less than half that of his predecessor.
The veteran leftist, who took office on Dec. 1, has put public sector austerity at the center of his plans to reduce corruption and inequality in Mexico.
Critics including judges say he is trying to undermine independent organs of the state like the court in order to control them. He has denied this.
Lopez Obrador has hit out at the court since it said it would freeze the pay cuts, pending a review.
“I have no doubt that they’re the best paid public servants in the world,” the 65-year-old told a regular morning news conference on Tuesday, repeating that Mexico’s judges earn 600,000 pesos ($29,619) a month. Last week, before the court ruling, he described such a salary as tantamount to “corruption” in Mexico.
“With all due respect, only Donald Trump earns more than the president of the supreme court,” he added.
On Twitter, the Supreme Court on Monday dismissed his figures as not “remotely” in line with the facts.
It was not immediately clear from publicly available sources exactly how much pay and benefits the judges receive.
According to figures in the 2018 budget, justices appointed before a 2009 law was passed, lowering the judges pay, were entitled to gross compensation - including various benefits - worth about 578,000 pesos a month.
The same budget figures showed justices appointed after that change had their basic entitlement cut by over one-third.
However, a supreme court spokesman said the 10 serving justices earned the same amount - a sum based on the higher pay bracket. Earlier, the court spokesman said the eight justices appointed after the change of the law received the lower salary.
The spokesman could not immediately account for the discrepancy.
After Trump was elected U.S. president in November 2016, he pledged to give up his presidential salary of $400,000 per year before taxes.
According to the U.S. Federal Judicial Center, the salary of the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was $267,000 as of Jan. 1, 2018 and Associate Justices of the court, $255,300.
On Monday, Mexico’s national association of magistrates and judges issued a public statement condemning the criticism of the judiciary as an attempt to “weaken the system of checks and balances on our democracy and damage the rule of law.”
Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) said on Tuesday it had filed a complaint to try to stop the decision to suspend the pay cuts. They hope to overturn the ruling before Dec. 15, when the government will present its 2019 budget.
Support for the judges is by no means solid in a country where many serious crimes go unpunished.
A 2013 study by watchdog Transparency International found 80 percent of respondents viewed the judiciary as corrupt in Mexico. Still, political parties and members of Congress fared even worse.
Reporting by Dave Graham; editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Richard Chang and Lisa Shumaker