Democracy at Stake in Battle for Guatemala’s Courts

By Luis Eduardo Barrueto

Guatemala's recently elected Appeals Court judge, Claudia Escobar Mejía, resigned her port and denounced corrupt election practices that favor the ruling party.
Guatemala’s recently elected Appeals Court judge, Claudia Escobar Mejía, resigned her post and denounced corrupt election practices that favor the ruling party. (Diario Digital)

EspañolClaudia Escobar Mejía, a recently elected magistrate to the Appeals Courts in Guatemala, stirred up the country on October 5 by resigning her post and publicly denouncing irregularities in the election process that favored the ruling party. What was brought to light as an unusually corrupt compromise — even for local standards — wouldn’t have captured national attention if not for her clear, denouncing voice.

Her brave act has triggered public opinion and legal action, and is now awaiting the Constitutional Court’s resolution, on which the future of democracy in Guatemala depends.

A few years ago, the Postulation Commission reformed the election process by introducing an attempt to make the election more transparent, and to further the inclusion of allegedly apolitical groups, including practicing lawyers and universities.

Anyone with the official requirements can apply for the job. The 34-member commission then selects 26 semi-finalists, from which Congress will pick the 13 judges to be granted a seat at the Supreme Court, as well as other lesser appointments. These magistrates effectively become the leaders of the judicial system for a period of five years. Not subject to an effective system of checks and balances, they are, in fact, the men at the steering wheel of a country that’s only been a formal democracy since 1985.

Several media outlets and journalists brought to light an unusual agreement between the ruling Patriotic Party (PP), and the main opposition party, Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER), to influence the outcome of the election by recommending members of the Postulation Commission who to nominate.

Formerly antagonists, PP party leaders improvised an alliance with LIDER due to the untimely breakup of a previous pact of three parties, which had proved useful in the election of representatives to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in March 2014. The coalition broke after those very representatives suspended PP and its leader, current Vice President Roxanna Baldetti, for up to six months.

Baldetti responded on two fronts: first, she presented a legal recourse at the Appeals Court in which Escobar was an appointed judge. However, the formal complaint she presented before the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-sponsored technical body, details how PP Congressman Gudy Rivera pressured her to rule in favor of the vice president, in exchange for certainty of her reelection.

Second, and most importantly, Baldetti scrambled to find a new pact to guarantee the magistrate election would be favorable to her party. She then made an awkward proposal to her former political enemy, LIDER founder and presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón. LIDER had to pull some strings, but could elect four out of 13 magistrates, effectively obtaining veto capabilities to block any trial interposed against them in the next five years.

In sum, the vice president sold the system of justice in exchange for a simple majority (the remaining nine posts in the court). Independent of the result in the upcoming election of 2015, in which PP and Lider are the main contenders, these strange bedfellows covered themselves with the blanket of impunity.

None of the deans of professional lawyers, nor the university deans involved in the Postulation Commission, spoke out about any of this. They were complicit in their silence. It took Judge Escobar’s brave voice to mobilize public opinion and embolden the practicing lawyers to take a stance for justice.

On her call, different judges and magistrates discussed the prospects for annulling the election process carried by the Postulation Commission. On October 3, the civil society group Citizen Action presented the court with the first legal resource against the election.

On October 7, others followed their steps. Their arguments, presented at the Constitutional Court (CC), is based on the elected magistrates’ lack of compliance with the main requirements to opt into office, as specified by the Judicial Career Law. They were allegedly elected in spite of the lack of requirements due to the convenience this posed for the official and the main opposing parties.

Another legal device was presented by the Center for the Defense of the Constitution (CEDECON), which made the case for abrogating the election on the basis of a violation of the division of powers. Over 60 judges publicly showed support for repeating the election.

Given this amount of public scrutiny, the CC needs to resolve this with justice in mind. A provisional ruling points in this direction, but political interests will not give in so smoothly. A hopeful precedent exists: the CC blockaded a similarly corrupt election process for Attorney General five years ago, and Escobar Mejia’s public statement has galvanized public opinion both online and in several demonstrations in front of the CC headquarters in Guatemala City.

Given that the current elected body of magistrates will favor both of the main incumbent candidates for the following election, what’s at stake is the country’s legal system. It may sink even further in the deep seas of impunity.

In any case, it will be necessary to have a broader discussion that the creation of the Postulation Commissions didn’t solve: without independently elected magistrates, justice perils at the hand of low politics.

Luis Eduardo Barrueto is a journalist from Guatemala. He studies in the Erasmus Mundus masters program in journalism, media, and globalization in London, United Kingdom. Follow @lebarrueto.

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