AS a young man Baltasar Garzon pumped gas to work his way through law school. Decades later, as a crusading judge, he went after the likes of Augusto Pinochet and Osama bin Laden and was nominated for the Nobel peace prize.

Now, Garzon's meteoric rise is being eclipsed by an equally spectacular fall from grace.
Spain's Eliot Ness is staring deep into the abyss as he awaits a potentially career-ending trial on charges of knowingly overstepping the bounds of his authority in a probe of Spanish civil war atrocities covered by an amnesty.

Garzon has other cases against him pending, and he reported to the Supreme Court yesterday to testify in one of them involving jailhouse wiretaps he ordered in a corruption probe.

For many in Spain, the saga goes beyond the issue of whether he has erred or not: They say the 54-year-old Garzon, who sports a slicked-back silvery mane, is being punished for his status as a celebrity — a jet-hopping, workaholic sleuth who loves being in the headlines.

Critics say he has a mixed record winning convictions, cuts procedural corners, and that he's less interested in promoting justice than in promoting Baltasar Garzon. Many see a simple explanation: colleagues in the Spanish judiciary are simply fed up with the man. “It comes as no surprise that his colleagues, some conservative and others socialist, are dying to give him a kick in the butt,” said Florentino Portero, a professor of history at Spain's National Open University. “Judges do not like stardom.” After years of pursuing villains outside Spain's borders, Garzon was indicted last month in connection with arguably his country's biggest unfinished case: the execution or disappearance of more than 100'000 civilians at the hands of supporters of Gen. Francisco Franco.

If convicted, Garzon does not face jail time but could be removed from the bench for up to 20 years.
Until Garzon acted, there had never been an official probe of that dark chapter of Spanish history. Some say his problems are retribution for breaking that taboo.

But Garzon's woes do not end there.
He's under formal investigation in two other cases: the one for allegedly ordering jailhouse wiretaps in a domestic corruption probe when such eavesdropping is limited to terrorism cases, and another involving Banco Santander's sponsorship of human rights seminars that Garzon organized while on sabbatical in New York in 2005 and 2006.