Bolivia Ushers in New Judicial System

Article excerpt

"Early in 2012, Bolivia introduced a new judicial system that aspires to be democratic, independent, equitable, and transparent. Above all, to be free from the history of corruption and exasperating slowness, proclivity to perks, and openness to political and economic influence peddling that, as all political and social actors agree, seems to have been characteristic of the judiciary during the republic's 185-year history." That straightforward Radio Nederland report on Jan. 4 summarized the opinion of local and international analysts consulted by the Dutch broadcaster and by the major South American media.

Availing itself of those experts' opinions, the Argentine daily Tiempo said on the same day, "All countries have exceptional characteristics that distinguish them. Yesterday Bolivia added one more to its own list: it is the only country in the world whose highest representatives in the three branches of government--the executive, the legislative, and the judicial--are directly elected by popular vote."

The new system also has other notable characteristics that make it unique. In a country in which 63% of the population are indigenous or Afro Bolivian--the later a tiny minority--it is truly revolutionary that this newly unveiled judiciary treats traditional and communitarian justice systems as equals, the former a legacy of ancient Rome, the latter traced to the first inhabitants of these American lands. And it has become absolutely free for all litigants, which, by facilitating equal access to justice, makes the system one of the most important ways of promoting democracy among those that the administration of President Evo Morales may have adopted since his inauguration in 2006.

Opposition criticizes new system

It is to be expected that an executive capable of promoting such profound changes would have powerful enemies. The Bolivian opposition, rightist and the voice of the large national and multinational business interests, does not agree with the world and, using its press outlets, says that the changes to the judiciary are anti-democratic. Joining this rightist group are some European foundations such as the German-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

In 2009, through a popular consultation, Bolivia changed its Constitution. Some 61.43% of voters approved the proposal of the Morales administration, ushering in the Plurinational State of Bolivia. In that consultation, the need was expressed to replace the judicial system with one that facilitates equal access to justice, one that democratizes it. That overwhelming majority also voted for the ancestral, communitarian judicial system to have the same standing as the traditional system.

The new Constitution came into force in 2010. On Oct. 16, 2011, the changes began to be implemented with the election of 56 magistrates--28 sitting judges and 28 alternates--who will lead the four sections of the judiciary: the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (9 members); the Tribunal Agroambiental (6); the Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional (7); and the Consejo de la Magistratura (5). Of those elected, 50% are women and 40% are indigenous, who will hold positions of power in the administration of justice for the first time in this Amazonian-Andean country. An indigenous woman presides the Consejo de la Magistratura, and an indigenous man will fulfill the same duties in the Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional. On Jan. 23, Morales made significant changes to his Cabinet, naming Cecilia Ayllon, an indigenous woman, as minister of justice.

Changes to process of choosing judges

The new Bolivian Constitution establishes that the judges in the four highest tribunals will have a six-year term and cannot be re-elected. In the old system, they were lifetime positions, as is the practice in most South American countries. The judges who today are elected by popular vote in the old system obtained their positions through a political mechanism in which transparency did not exist: the Congress presented a short list of candidates to the president who chose one. …