As of Friday, June 2nd, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly and the Presidency succeeded in sabotaging the Judiciary. A legislative initiative led by the National Coalition Party (PCN) proposed to change the process by which the Constitutional Court operates, requiring unanimity among the five magistrates on the bench to approve a decision. Such consensus is rare and would essentially prohibit the court from producing new decisions. Without deliberation, debate or amendments, the legislation passed Thursday afternoon and PCN representative Elizardo González Lovo left the assembly before the session was over to take the reform directly to the presidential palace to be approved or vetoed. To the dismay and shock of many, President Funes signed the reform within hours and it was made effective immediately.
The reform is an overt attack against four of the Constitutional Court magistrates whose term began in July 2009 following the election of current President Mauricio Funes. Their three-year term will expire in July 2012, and the drafters of the legislation included a sunset provision so that the unanimity requirement will expire in July 2012, after the four are off the bench.
Since becoming magistrates in 2009, Belarmino Jaime, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González y Sidney Blanco have chosen strategic cases to strengthen national institutions and target corruption within government agencies. Over the past two years, the four magistrates have passed down some very important decisions, while the fifth magistrate, Nelson Castaneda, has mostly abstained from votes. In one example, the Court condemned a law that reallocated funds left over from the general budget to the President’s discretionary account. They also declared as unconstitutional the practice of limiting voters to elect only a political party and then allowing the party leadership to select the people who would fill legislative or other representative seats. In a related issue, the Constitutional Court struck down a ban on independent candidates, weakening the power that political parties have over the electoral process. Members of the Constitutional Court also declared unconstitutional the absolute control that the Attorney General’s Office has over what cases are investigated and prosecuted. The decision that caused the greatest controversy in recent weeks was their declaration against the 2005 reforms that allowed the PCN and PDC parties to continue participating in elections despite their in ability to secure the number of votes necessary to be put on the ballot or have representation on the Supreme Electoral Court.
While these sentences establish clear separation of powers and support transparency, they each considerably affect the powerful grip that the country’s respective political parties have held over Salvadoran governability.
The new law requiring unanimous consent to issue a ruling essentially takes away the court’s ability to take on any of these controversial issues. The timing of the law is not accidental. The Court was about to take up the issue of the “Dividend System” that guarantees seats in the Legislative Assembly for minority political parties, specifically the PCN and PDC.
As the reform was being rushed through the legislative process ARENA representative Ávila Qüel exclaimed, “The reform doesn’t favor institutionalism at all!” and reminded the Assembly that the Constitutional Magistrates are who dictate whether the Magna Carta has been violated, and even if he isn’t in agreement with their sentences, they must be respected. Before leaving the Assembly in protest, he cried, “Somebody should interpret the Constitution!”
This law and Funes’ support of it is wrong for many reasons. It is a settled principle of democracy that the Judiciary be independent of the Legislative and Executive branches, and left to interpret the constitution and law free from political interests. This new law is an overt action to protect political interests from actions of the court, and punish magistrates for taking on entrenched political and economic interests, as well as corruption. The law also sets a dangerous precedent that subjects the Judiciary to the will and interests of the Legislative and Executive branches.
Debate and dissent are at the very heart of democracy. El Salvador has a civil law system, yet their judicial code has always stipulated voting by majority. Unanimous voting closes the door to dissenting opinions, because the court must present only one opinion. Dissenting opinions create a dialogue between past, present, and future courts, in that it allows courts to rely on their predecessors when overturning precedent.
Civil society from all sectors of the political spectrum have expressed their concern. Also, the Organization of American States is meeting in San Salvador this weekend, and civil society will present a report to the Secretary General to demonstrate that the law violates the Inter-American Democratic Letter. Tomorrow there will be a demonstration at Salvador del Mundo at 3pm, and Monday morning there will be workshops at the UCA.