Honduras' political standoff escalated Wednesday as legal officials debated whether a congressional vote to remove four Supreme Court justices violated the constitution.
Attorney General Luis Rubi decried the early-morning vote to dismiss the justices after they rejected a plan by President Porfirio Lobo to clean up the corrupt national police. He said his office is studying whether the lawmakers can be prosecuted.
"No one is above the law, not the congress, not the president of the congress or of the republic," Rubi said. "We're analyzing the responsibility of those who made this decision and whether we need to act."
The vote early Wednesday would replace four of the five justices on the constitutional chamber, a committee of the Supreme Court, whose justices have been serving since January 2009 and have been overruling Lobo's attempts at reform in the troubled Central American country.
Those include his plans to create private cities and to weed out corrupt and criminal police officers.
"The conduct of the judges endangered citizen security and is manifestly contrary to the interests of the state," said congressman Jeffrey Flores, a member of Lobo's National Party who introduced the motion.
The four justices released a statement calling their dismissal "illegitimate, illegal and unjust" and declared that they have a right to due process. It was unclear who would continue to sit on the court as congress had already named their replacements.
An attorney with the Supreme Court, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said justices can be dismissed only for administrative reasons, such as in misuse of funds, and not for their rulings. Justices are elected by congress.
Opposing congressmen decried the message that the vote and political chaos are sending to the country and the international community.
"The legislature is intimidating the judiciary," said Jose Saavedra, head of the rival Liberal Party in congress. "It violates the separation of powers."
Congress late Tuesday also approved a measure that would allow the president or congress to put the police cleanup and other issues to public referendum.
The political climate around the vote was extremely tense in a country that saw Lobo's predecessor ousted in a 2009 coup. Dozens of police and soldiers surrounded congress for a time while legislators debated about replacing the justices.
Former President Manuel Zelaya was whisked out of the country at gunpoint in his pajamas in June 2009 after he ignored the same Supreme Court and tried to hold a referendum on his plan to revise the constitution, promising the poor they would get a voice in shaping the future of the country.
Lobo over the weekend accused the same Honduran business leaders behind Zelaya's ouster of colluding with the justices to undercut his power, hinting that they might even attempt another coup.
Honduras' federal judges have long been closely tied with the business elite. In October, the Supreme Court shot down Lobo's plan to build private cities as a means of attracting investment and economic development.
Last week, four of five members of the constitutional court, the same who were dismissed Wednesday, declared unconstitutional his police cleanup plan. The full Supreme Court was scheduled to issue a ruling this week, but has yet to do so in the current political turmoil.
Drug trafficking and violence have spiked in Honduras since Zelaya's ouster in Honduras, where two-thirds of the 8.2 million people live in poverty. With a homicide rate of 91 per 100,000 residents, it is often called the most violent country in the world.
The 2009 coup split created a headache for the United States, which cut off aid to Honduras as punishment, but then was criticized for recognizing Lobo's government after he was elected in a regularly scheduled vote later that year.
Lobo took office in January 2010 and is limited to a single term, which ends next year. Within six months, Lobo was accusing unnamed opponents of plotting a second coup to oust him from power.
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it is monitoring the situation and is urging all parties involved to "respect democratic norms."
"The United States is deeply interested in the success of democracy in Honduras and the strengthening and independence of its institutions," State Department press adviser William Ostick said. "We look to the Honduran people to resolve this matter peacefully and democratically."