The Venezuelan Congress dealt a severe blow to judicial independence by packing the country’s Supreme Court with 12 new justices, Human Rights Watch said today. A majority of the ruling coalition, dominated by President Hugo Chávez’s party, named the justices late yesterday, filling seats created by a law passed in May that expanded the court’s size by more than half.
“Five years ago, President Chávez’s supporters helped to enshrine the principle of judicial independence in a new democratic constitution,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Now, by packing the country’s highest court, they are betraying that principle and degrading Venezuelan democracy.”
The law passed in May expanded the court from 20 to 32 members. In addition to the justices named to the 12 new seats, five justices were named to fill vacancies that had opened in recent months, and 32 more were named as reserve justices for the court. Members and allies of President Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento V República, or MVR) form a majority in Congress.
In 1999 a constituent assembly convoked by President Chávez drafted a constitution that guarantees the independence of the judicial branch and the autonomy of the Supreme Court. The Constitution specifically seeks to guarantee the independence of Supreme Court justices by establishing an impeachment process according to which justices may only be removed for “serious offenses” by a two-thirds majority vote by Congress.
But in May, President Chávez signed a court-packing law that allowed his governing coalition in the legislature to obtain an overwhelming majority of seats on the country’s highest court. The 17 new justices (and 32 reserves) were selected yesterday by a simply majority vote of the governing coalition, which did not reveal the names of the nominees to the opposition members of Congress until the time of the vote.
The court-packing law signed in May also gave the governing coalition the power to remove judges from the Court without the two-thirds majority vote required under the constitution. In June, two justices retired after facing possible suspension from the Supreme Court as a result of these new provisions.
The political takeover of the Supreme Court will compound the damage already done to judicial independence by policies pursued by the court itself. The Supreme Court, which has administrative control over the judiciary, has failed to provide security of tenure to 80 percent of the country’s judges. In March, the court summarily fired three judges after they had decided politically controversial cases.
Chávez supporters have justified the court-packing effort largely as a response to pro-opposition rulings in a deeply divided court, such as a highly questionable decision that absolved military officers who participated in the 2002 coup.
“President Chávez and his supporters should be taking steps to strengthen the judiciary,” Vivanco said. “Instead, they are rigging the system to favor their own interests.”