Caracas, December 14, 2004—Venezuela’s National Assembly elected 17 new justices to the country’s Supreme Court on Monday, causing opposition legislators to accuse the government of stacking the court with their sympathizers. The votes that ratified the appointment of the new justices were garnered exclusively from Pro-Chávez deputies after opposition legislators walked out of the session in protest.
The reform of the judiciary has been a controversial topic since a law passed last April expanded the Court from 20 to 32 justices, and added three new chambers to the Supreme Court. 17 new judges were appointed to fill the 12 new positions, and 5 positions vacated since the law was passed. A further 32 justices were elected as substitutes.
Last June US-based Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report comparing Venezuela’s “court-packing law” with totalitarian measures of Carlos Menem and Alberto Fujimori, former-Presidents of Argentina and Peru, respectively. The report did not mention controversies in the US over the appointments of Supreme Court justices during the tenure of former President Ronald Reagan, and current President George W. Bush. Between 1981 and 1990, Reagan appointed 384 justices out of a total (at the time) of 757, more than any other President in US history, reported USA Today recently. Current US President Bush has repeatedly appointed justices while Congress is in recess.
The government insists the expansion is needed to speed up and clean up Venezuela’s notoriously inefficient and allegedly corrupt justice system. Family members of victims from the April, 2002 coup were outraged when the Supreme court ruled in August, 2002 that the events of April 11-13, 2002 represented a ‘power vacuum’ and not a coup.
On April 11th President Hugo Chávez was taken from the Presidential Palace under military escort, and business-leader Pedro Carmona was appointed transitional President by a group of high-ranking military officers. Carmona’s first act as transitional President was to suspend the Constitution, the National Assembly, the Ombudsman, and the Supreme Court. Chávez was restored to power on April 13th by loyal elements of the military and massive mobilizations by supporters.
The August 14th, 2002 ruling denying the coup is currently being challenged by Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez.
Opposition Walks Out
What was expected to be a marathon session of Congress, yesterday, lasted less than two hours. As opposition deputies left the National Assembly, they accused the government of seeking complete control over the judiciary and condemned the appointments of the new judges as unconstitutional.
Despite their absence, the selection of the 49 judges was approved by a vote of 101, out of a total of 165 members of the National Assembly. The approval of the nominees requires 2-3 of the votes in the National Assembly, however, anti-gridlock legislation maintains that if this percentage is not reached within three sessions, a simple majority (51%) is sufficient. Pro-Chávez legislators control a slim majority of the 165 seats in the National Assembly.
Before walking out of the National Assembly, opposition deputies ridiculed the selection procedures and implied that new justices were being appointed for their pro-government sympathies, rather than for their professional qualifications. “This is a day of mourning for Venezuela,” said opposition leader Juan José Caldera. “How can we present some names that we have not even had sufficient time to revise, let alone time to thoroughly study their résumés?” he asked before storming out of the Assembly.
Luis Beltrán Franco, member of the opposition party Democratic Action (AD), warned that designating people based on political affiliation in order to pack the Supreme Court is a violation of the National Constitution.
According to the Venezuelan Constitution, the independence and autonomy of the Judiciary is guaranteed under Article 254. Unlike the United States judiciary branch, where judges are appointed for life, Supreme Court justices in Venezuela serve one twelve-year term (article 264) and may be impeached for “serious offenses” by a 2/3 vote in the National Assembly (article 265).
The First Vice President of the National Assembly, Ricardo Gutiérrez, announced that the new justices will be sworn in on Wednesday, December 15 at 11am by the National Assembly and will officially assume their duties shortly thereafter.