Supreme Court Constitutional Chamber accused of serving ARENA's interests

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Accounts Court magistrates are sworn in by Legislative Assembly. Less than 24 hours later the Constitutional Chamber revoked their election.

On March 21, four of the five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court revoked the Legislative Assembly’s election of three new magistrates to the Accounts Court, the State auditing institution, prompting widespread outcry. President Mauricio Funes and Supreme Court President Salomón Padilla have criticized the decision’s rationale, calling it an overstep of the Constitutional Chamber’s duties. The conflict is the latest in a series of disputes between the legislative and judicial powers.

In accordance with constitutionally mandated procedures, the Legislative Assembly had elected three new Accounts Court magistrates in June 2011. But 18 months later, in January 2013, the Constitutional Chamber deemed the elections unconstitutional and ordered a new vote, the Chamber argued that legislators did not explicitly document the magistrates’ fulfillment of the position’s required “recognized competence” and “honor,” qualifications that have never previously been documented, but have been understood to be established in the legislative debate leading up to the elections. On March 20, the Assembly held a second round of elections, but in less than 24 hours, the Constitutional Chamber issued a statement invalidating the new elections.

Salomón Padilla, President of the Supreme Court and the single Constitutional Chamber magistrate who did not sign the statement, questioned its legitimacy. Contrary to Supreme Court protocol, Padilla did not convene the meeting of magistrates that produced the statement, nor was he present for it. Padilla also claimed that the Chamber’s decision of unconstitutionality was not a ruling on a case before the court, and therefore the magistrates had no jurisdiction over the elections. The magistrate went on to say the statement “could be considered a clear intromission into affairs that correspond to the Legislative Assembly.” President Funes voiced his own concerns, saying the decision “has created a serious institutional problem that greatly harms the country, that harms its international image and could even be considered an attack against democracy.”

Prior conflicts between the Court and the Assembly were also spurred by the same four Constitutional Chamber magistrates. The leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party along with many labor, campesino and women’s organizations have previously accused them of bowing to outside interests, particularly those of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party and the big-business sector it represents.

In a newspaper editorial about the four Chamber magistrates’ statement, the head of the FMLN legislative group wrote: “The situation that these four lawyers put the country in is really dangerous…the posture of servility to an oligarchic block remains even clearer with these actions.” In fact, a 2008 US Embassy cable revealed ARENA plans that centered on “control of key institutions, including the Supreme Court” in the case of a Funes victory in the 2009 presidential elections. Considering the role of Supreme Courts in recent coups d’états in Honduras and Paraguay, these recent judicial interventions in national governance are particularly troubling.

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