Nicaragua top court picks president's supporters to replace boycotting opposition judges

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Nicaraguan Supreme Court justices who support President Daniel Ortega picked seven lawyers from Ortega's Sandinista party Wednesday to replace opposition judges who have been boycotting court sessions.

The main opposition party denounced the move as "unconstitutional and illegal" as Nicaragua lurched in another step of a bitter political struggle.

Justices from the opposition Liberal Constitutionalist Party stopped showing up at court sessions 10 months ago to protest Ortega's decision to extend the terms of two Sandinista judges after a deadlocked National Assembly failed to name replacements.

The high court's president, Judge Alba Luz Ramos, said the new justices were being installed so the court can resolve a string of pending cases.

The conservative Liberal Constitutionalist Party and Ortega's leftist party dominate Nicaraguan politics, but neither has the numbers to control the single-house legislature.

A fight has been raging for months in the National Assembly and Supreme Court over presidential powers and term limits.

Supreme Court justices loyal to Ortega's party have overruled constitutional term limits, paving the way for him to run for a second consecutive term.

The deadlocked legislature, meanwhile, has been unable to name replacements for 22 government officials whose terms have run out. Ortega has extended their terms by presidential decree.

Ortega first came to power after Sandinista rebels toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, ruling a guerrilla-dominated junta before winning a presidential election in 1984. His government fought the U.S.-backed Contra rebels for a decade until Ortega lost his bid to be elected for a second term.

By the time Ortega was voted back into office in 2006, Nicaragua had banned presidents from seeking consecutive terms. But he won the court ruling last year to overturn the ban.