By Dave Graham
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 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 centre 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 his claim that Mexico's judges earn 600,000 pesos 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.
Official data contradicted his assertion.
On Twitter, the Supreme Court dismissed his figures as not "remotely" in line with the facts.
After Trump was elected U.S. president in November 2016, he pledged to give up his presidential salary of $400,000 per year before tax.
Under the 2018 budget, including benefits, Mexican supreme court justices were granted total annual compensation before tax of 4.35 million pesos ($214,700), or 362,000 pesos per month.
Still, two of 10 serving judges who were appointed before a 2009 law which lowered justices' pay are entitled to 6.94 million pesos ($342,590) annually in total pre-tax compensation, because the cut did not apply to them. That equates to some 578,000 pesos per month.
The president of the court is not one of the two, and earns the same as the other eight, a Supreme Court spokesman said.
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.
($1 = 20.2575 Mexican pesos)
(Reporting by Dave Graham; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Richard Chang)