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III. Background

The Judiciary’s Disreputable Past

When President Chávez became president in 1999, he inherited a judiciary that had been plagued for years by influence-peddling, political interference, and, above all, corruption.  In interviews with Human Rights Watch, lawyers from across the political spectrum described a system in which justice had often been for sale to the highest bidder.  Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez recalled how the country’s top administrative court in the past actually established set fees for resolving different kinds of cases.12

A 1996 report on the Venezuelan justice system by the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights painted a grim portrait of the judiciary:

Rather than serving the constitutional role of defender of the rule of law and protector of the human rights of Venezuelan citizens against the government, the courts had often become highly politicized adjuncts of the parties. They were manipulated by groups of lawyers, judges, political and business actors for private economic gain. And court procedures had become so slow, cumbersome and unreliable that disputants avoided them at all costs.13

In terms of public credibility, the system was bankrupt.  A 1998 survey by the United Nations Development Program found that only 0.8 percent of the population had confidence in the judiciary.14  That distrust translated into public outrage, and in the presidential election of that year, candidates across the political spectrum—including Hugo Chávez Frías—promised to clean up the system. 

Declaring a Judicial Emergency

Once in office, President Chávez launched an ambitious effort to reform the Venezuelan state that included holding a referendum to convene a National Constituent Assembly, which then drafted a new constitution that went into effect in December 1999. Due to the overwhelming public consensus that judicial reform was needed, the Chávez administration initially found support for its efforts in this area even among its political adversaries. 

One of the first acts of the National Constituent Assembly was to declare that the judiciary was in a state of emergency.  It suspended the tenure of judges and created an emergency commission which it empowered to suspend judges who faced seven or more complaints or any type of criminal investigation, or who showed signs of wealth incommensurate with their salaried income.  In the following months, the emergency commission removed hundreds of judges from their posts.15

Political Polarization under Chávez

The consensus around judicial reforms has largely dissolved as the country has grown increasingly polarized in response to President Chávez’s policies and style of governance.  Over the past three years the mounting political tensions have erupted into violence on several occasions and there have been three concerted efforts by sectors of the opposition to remove President Chávez from office: an aborted coup d’état in April 2002, a national strike that lasted from December 2002 through February 2003 (and had an enormously negative impact on the country’s economy), and a petition drive held in December 2003 to authorize a referendum.   

The polarization, which pervades Venezuelan society, has found its way into the Supreme Court as well.  All twenty sitting justices were selected by the National Constituent Assembly in March 2000 through a 2/3 majority vote, which would suggest they had support from people across the political spectrum.  Today, however, it is common wisdom within the legal community that the Court is deeply divided between opponents and allies of President Chávez.  It is an even, ten-ten split, with each camp controlling some of the Court’s six chambers.  The opposition camp is said to have a majority of seats in the electoral chamber.  The pro-Chávez camp has a majority in the constitutional chamber, as well as on the six-member Judicial Commission that handles many of the Court’s administrative affairs.  Supreme Court President Ivan Rincón Urdaneta, who is a member of both the constitutional chamber and the Judicial Commission, is viewed as an ally of President Chávez. 

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez, Caracas, May 14, 2004.

[13]  “Halfway to Reform: The World Bank and the Venezuelan Justice System,” A Joint Report by The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and The Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Education and Action,” 1996, available at

[14] United Nations Development Program, Justicia y gobernabilidad. Venezuela: una reforma judicial en marcha. Caracas: Editorial Nueva Sociedad, 1998, p. 143.  Cited in Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, Dirección Ejecutiva de la Magistratura, Unidad Coordinadora del Proyecto de Modernización del Poder Judicial, “Proyecto para la Mejora de la Administración de Justicia en el Contexto de la Resolución de Conflictos en Venezuela,” p. 8.

[15] Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, Dirección Ejecutiva de la Magistratura, Unidad Coordinadora del Proyecto de Modernización del Poder Judicial, “Proyecto para la Mejora de la Administración de Justicia en el Contexto de la Resolución de Conflictos en Venezuela,” p. 23.

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