How Colombia's President Santos made peace with the judiciary
Colombia's legal reforms are key for securing passage of a new US-Colombia free trade agreement. President Juan Manuel Santos is meeting today with President Obama to discuss the issue.
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“Can you go to a court in [Colombia] down the street and bring grievances and have faith that the system is going to work? I would say no,” says Luz Nagle, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law and a former judge in Colombia. “The reality is there is still a lot of corruption in Colombia."Skip to next paragraph
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Constitutional Court stands up to president
One bright spot in the judicial system, Professor Nagle says, is the Constitutional Court – the highest arbiter of constitutional issues. It gained popular support by upholding individual rights during the Uribe era and shocked international observers by denying Uribe a third presidential term.
Limiting Uribe’s tenure was essential for upholding democracy and is a signal that Santos must work with, and not against, the judiciary, says Manuel José Cepeda Espinosa, a Constitutional Court justice from 2001 to 2009.
“It showed that Colombia, though it has many problems, is a country that has rule of law and that the principle that the Constitution is the superior law of the land is respected by the winners and the losers, even if the losers are very powerful,” says Mr. Cepeda, now a law professor who serves as a prominent adviser to the reform commission.
Santos’s efforts appear well-intentioned, Cepeda says, but the judicial system is now on close guard.
“I agree that President Santos wants to create a constructive climate between all the branches of government. It is his political style and that has been very good for the country, but that doesn’t mean that either the Supreme Court or the Constitutional Court in the exercise of their functions will approach issues with deference to the executive,” he says.
Eduardo Cifuentes Muñoz, another former judge on the Constitutional Court and the author of many of its most progressive decisions, is also wary of Santos’ overtures, particularly of his attempts to rearrange power-sharing between the courts and the executive branch.
In standing up to Uribe, “the judiciary finally won the battle against the president” – momentum the courts do not want to give up, he says.
Santos, after all, was Uribe’s Minister of Defense, and his relationship with judiciary is far from cozy. His judicial reform commission, for one, has yet to reach a consensus, months after final proposals were to be introduced to Congress. The government and the courts remain divided over proposals to overhaul the body that oversees internal judicial administration, and many worry that other reforms paper over serious problems with judges at lower levels, such as a lack of training.
Francisco Reyes Villamizar, a well-connected commercial lawyer who has been active in reform discussions, says the efforts “are looking at everything in a random, disorganized way.” True reform means dealing with issues of everyday justice, he says, not just the turf battles between elite institutions.