On May 1, 2021, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador resolved -as the first act in its first session- to remove all the magistrates and alternate magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber and the Attorney General of the Republic from their positions, and to directly appoint their replacements, placing in these positions a group of lawyers and a lawyer, respectively, related to their interests. These acts were unanimously condemned by international human rights organizations and civil society organizations throughout the region, as a repetition of the disastrous authoritarian experiences of the past and as a current threat to hemispheric democracy. One year later, the impacts of these actions have been manifold; some of them have become clearer with the passage of time. In this article I offer five approaches to these events with the purpose of making their different effects visible.
1. Serious violations of all the guarantees of judicial independence
International human rights law guarantees judicial independence, both at the institutional level (of the judiciary as a whole) and at the personal level (of each individual judge). Various bodies, both of the United Nations system and the Inter-American system, have developed the contents of this guarantee: (i) an adequate appointment process, (ii) the guarantee of irremovability and (iii) the guarantee against external pressures.
The events of May 1 violated all of these, without exception. The removal of high magistrates, based on the content of their decisions, without a serious cause previously established by law, and without due process, violated the guarantee of the irremovability of the members of the Constitutional Chamber. The pressures that forced the voluntary resignations of almost all the legitimate magistrates of this body -through letters with identical wording-, and the use of public force to take over the facilities of the Supreme Court of Justice and prevent them from entering their offices (in addition to installing their replacements), violated the guarantee against external pressures. Finally, the direct appointment without following the selection mechanism foreseen in the internal rules violated the guarantee of an adequate selection process.
Last Wednesday, March 16, a public hearing was held before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to address the situation of judicial independence in El Salvador. In it, the petitioning organizations presented to this international body a reading of various decisions, facts and arbitrary reforms that occurred in 2021, as a strategy to capture the justice system, executed with the deliberate aim of neutralizing its ability to control power and protect human rights.
The State, for its part, deployed an opposite narrative: all these acts would have obeyed, rather, to the objective of «strengthening and modernizing» a justice system «inefficient and conducive to widespread impunity». In this note, I intend to answer some of these arguments to demonstrate that there are reasonable grounds to consider that the state’s commitment to judicial independence is not sincere or, even, that there is a manipulation or appropriation of the discourse in defense of judicial independence, for purposes contrary to those stated.
As a starting point, it is worth briefly summarizing the civil society approach. It was argued that the Salvadoran justice system -which includes both the judiciary and the Attorney General’s Office- has been the object of a strategy of capture by the political power currently in government, executed in various stages.
On January 19, 2022, the Venezuelan National Assembly, whose members were elected in the disputed elections of December 2020, adopted a new law that will affect the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, TSJ). On its face, the law does not comply which international human rights standards on judicial independence.
The Venezuelan Supreme Court is Venezuela’s highest judicial body, supervising the governance and administration of the judiciary. This supervision extends both to its judicial review function and its oversight of administrative matters, including budget and disciplinary controls. The new proposed law reduces the number of justices in the Supreme Court from 32 to 20 and changes the composition of the Judiciary Nomination Committee tasked with nomination of Supreme Court justices, so that there is a greater number of political members from Venezuela’s National Assembly. The law also renews the terms of all the current sitting justices, not only those who are about to finish their terms. Likewise, it also establishes that the National Assembly will appoint other administrative offices in the judiciary, such as the General Inspector of Courts and the Director of the National School of the Judiciary.
The political attack on justice is a central moment in the processes of democratic erosion. When we look at the cases of autocratization in Latin America and the European Union we find that the capture of justice (especially the capture of constitutional courts) is the decisive, and often irreversible, moment in the slide towards authoritarian rule. Many people today are asking why the capture of the judiciary has become so important to authoritarian leaders, and what we can do in the face of this challenge. To explore these questions, I propose three ideas:
The first is that the relationship between authoritarianism and the rule of law is not linear. Political science has had to confront this ambiguity throughout its intellectual history.
On Saturday, November 7 – four days after Election Day – most major media outlets reported that Joe Biden was the projected winner of the presidential race against incumbent Donald Trump. It is standard practice in the US for elections to be called based on unofficial vote tallies reported by states, before being officially certified several weeks later. According to current popular vote tallies, Biden received about 5.5 million more votes than Trump; but more importantly, Biden is projected to cross the threshold of 270 votes in the electoral college (the proportional state-based system for electing the president) required to win. In normal times, this would result in the losing candidate conceding the race, and the process of certifying votes would be little more than a formality in terms of the final outcome.
However, we do not live in normal times and Donald Trump is anything but a typical president. Trump declared that it is he who is the winner, and that massive fraud had occurred in swing states where tallies showed that Biden had prevailed. Indeed, Trump had signaled for months that he would not concede and that he could only lose if the election was rigged. The Trump campaign and the Republican party have filed multiple lawsuits before and after the election to contest the validity of certain ballots. In the public sphere, Trump and his supporters continue to allege widespread voter fraud, without evidence. This post will provide an overview of the current state of election litigation and consider the likelihood that the US Supreme Court could play a decisive role.
El sábado 7 de noviembre —cuatro días después de la jornada electoral—la mayoría de los medios de comunicación informaron que se proyectaba que Joe Biden había ganado las elecciones presidenciales frente al actual presidente Donald Trump. En Estados Unidos es habitual que el resultado de las elecciones se anuncie en función de conteos de votos no oficiales informados por los estados antes de su certificación oficial, que se produce varias semanas más tarde. Según los últimos conteos de votos, Biden recibió alrededor de 5,5 millones más de votos que Trump, pero lo más importante es que se proyecta que Biden superará el mínimo de 270 votos en el Colegio Electoral (sistema proporcional vinculado a los estados que se utiliza para elegir al presidente) necesario para ganar. En épocas normales, el candidato perdedor hubiera aceptado la derrota y el proceso de certificación de votos sería poco más que una formalidad a efectos del resultado final.
Sin embargo, no vivimos en épocas normales y Donald Trump no es para nada un presidente común. Trump declaró que él es el ganador y que en los estados clave donde los conteos de votos demostraban que Biden había triunfado se había cometido un fraude masivo. Lo cierto es que desde hace meses Trump ha estado dando señales de que no aceptaría la derrota y de que solo podría perder si los comicios estuvieran amañados. El equipo de campaña de Trump y el partido republicano iniciaron varias acciones judiciales antes y después de las elecciones para impugnar la validez de determinadas boletas. En el ámbito público, Trump y sus partidarios continúan afirmando, sin aportar pruebas, que hubo fraude electoral generalizado. En este artículo se ofrece una breve descripción del estado actual de los litigios electorales y se analiza la posibilidad de que la Corte Suprema de Estados Unidos pueda desempeñar un papel decisivo.