Mercedes Alaya, often referred to in the media as “la jueza Alaya” counts among the elite group of so-called “star-judges”. This unofficial title refers to judges who not only preside over important or controversial cases, but also receive a lot of media attention, for various reasons.
Mercedes Alaya studied law at Sevilla University and became a judge at the age of 25. She gave birth to the first of her four children at the age of 20 whilst still studying. She first worked in Carmona near Sevilla and then in Fuengirola, near Malaga. It was here that she first came to public attention in the 1990s for her work in dealing with the local mayor on a corruption case, gaining the reputation of being an “iron lady”.
She moved to Sevilla in 1992 where she has remained ever since. She came to public attention again in 2008 on account of an embezzlement case involving the Real Betis football club. This case led to the resignation of the club president Manuel Ruiz de Lopera who had held the position for 18 years.
It is the current scandal referred to as the “Caso ERE” which has brought Mercedes Alaya to national fame. This is an investigation into a network of political corruption potentially reaching the highest levels of Andalucía’s regional government. It involves the illegal issuing of redundancy and dismissal certificates and funds by the authorities to local companies. This complex case also involves millions of euros of European money which was meant for training courses. The case is politically charged as Andalucia is a PSOE (Socialist party) stronghold, whereas the Spanish central government is PP, the conservative People’s Party.
The judge herself has been the subject of media scrutiny during the case for various reasons. She went on sick leave for six months, delaying the process which she refused to hand over to other judges. On her return she has continued to doggedly pursue the case alone. Her delays in pursuing the big political fish has been seen on the one hand as a bias in their favour and on the other hand as a result of her personal ambition to keep the case, as once accusations are made against top political leaders, the case has to pass to the supreme court in Madrid.
Mercedes Alaya has been described as distant, unstoppable, persevering, discreet, hard-working, and intelligent as well as enigmatic and elegant. She has often been the subject of chauvinistic remarks which have also created controversy. The most notorious example was the comment made by the Andalucian Councillor for Justice who said: “How does she find the time to study, to deal with such complications cases, and to keep herself so pretty”.