San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

High Court Inundated By Cases Inside

“JUSTICIAEST CONSTANS ET PERPETUA,”carved letters proudly proclaim above theentrance to the Supreme Court in downtown SanJosé: justice is constant and perpetual.Perpetual, indeed, for the overwhelmed justicesof the court’s Constitutional Chamber (Sala IV) – anentity whose broad range of powers is both itsstrength and its Achilles’ heel.According to Luis Fernando Solano, president of thechamber, its members face an endless and unreasonablecaseload, and the court system must be reformed if theSala IV is to fulfill its original purpose of interpreting theConstitution.The chamber has a greater number of functions andpowers than any other constitutional entity in the world,Solano told The Tico Times. While this gives ordinarycitizens an unusual degree of access to the country’ssupreme judicial authority, the sheer number of cases hasthe seven justices struggling to keep up.Last year alone, 14,000 new cases were filed beforethe court. The justices have moved through the appeals relatively quickly, sometimes deciding200-400 in a single four- or five-hour session.Still, nearly 3,000 new cases remainin the docket today, Solano said.To deal with the problem, justices arefinishing a proposal to establish intermediarycourts to help reduce the Sala IV workload.UNLIKE constitutional authorities incountries such as the United States, wherea case must make its way through a heftynetwork of inferior courts before SupremeCourt justices even consider hearing it,anyone with access to a fax or telegraphcan file a case before the Sala IV. The courteven receives cases directly from prisoners,who have free fax access in jail,Solano said.The 1989 law that created the chambergave it jurisdiction previously scatteredamong different courts, including habeascorpus cases and lawsuits regarding constitutionalrights, as well as motions ofunconstitutionality and consultations byjudges and legislators (see sidebar).“In September 1989, when the justicesbegan to work, we already had 45 casesthat had been in different offices,” Solanosaid. “Also, more people began to file suitsafter the judicial reform because before,one had to exhaust administrative recoursesbefore placing an appeal. The new lawsaid you could go directly to the Sala IV.”By the end of 1989, justices had 500cases, he said.BECAUSE the chamber deals withsuch varied complaints, sent by telegramfrom farmers or presented by the Vice-President, its decisions are ubiquitous inthe nation’s headlines, and its justices oftenreceive complaints from every corner ofsociety.In a recent example, a suit filed bymayors throughout the country promptedthe chamber to rule that the FinanceMinistry was obliged to turn over funds forroad repair (TT, Nov. 19, 2004). That rulingtriggered responses to the Sala IV bythe ministry and Vice-President LinethSaborío, additional suits from municipalleaders and one suit by disgruntled citizenOscar Campos. The court is still consideringthese follow-up cases (TT, April 1).The ease of filing a case means thecourt sometimes receives thousands fromthe same group. In December 2002, agroup of teachers’ associations filed 2,580suits in a single day, claiming the LaborMinistry had violated their right to petitionregarding pensions. They filed 1,200 morea few months later.THOUGH such cases can be dealt withrelatively quickly, they still take time toprocess – and, according to Jorge Rivera, ajudicial assistant to the Sala IV, almost allcases must be reviewed by the justicesthemselves. The only exception is whenclerks ask a case’s author to clarify anunclear portion or add missing information,and the person does not resubmit the case.When the staff members who processcases determine a case does not deal with aconstitutional issue, or the chamber hasalready ruled on the issue in question, theycan suggest to the justices that the case berejected. However, the justices still makethe final decision.WHAT can be done to alleviate thepressure?According to Solano, the justices are“in the final days” of completing a proposalfor judicial reform. The change wouldcreate intermediate tribunals to deal withhabeas corpus and injunction requests,which represent 85% of the chamber’s currentworkload.“The Sala IV would be reserved formore delicate issues: motions of unconstitutionality,legislative and judicial consultationsand conflict of powers,” he said.“These are more important issues andthey’re the nucleus of any constitutionalcourt’s work.”The reforms also would designate“judges of constitutional execution” whowould be in charge of the post-decisionphase, upholding Sala IV rulings and dealingwith follow-up cases. In the road-fundscase, for example, a “judge of execution”would have handled all additional casesprompted by the justices’ original ruling.Parties unhappy with lower court rulingscould still appeal to the Sala IV,Solano said, “but that would be an exceptionalpower that the Sala would reservewith very, very clear specifications.”THE time frame for this proposedchange is unclear.To alter the justice system, LegislativeAssembly members must first reformArticle 48 of the Constitution, which currentlystates that the ConstitutionalChamber has sole jurisdiction over writs ofhabeas corpus and injunction requests.Solano said 10 legislators of differentparties have already backed this reform,and discussion of it is expected to start inMay when the assembly’s ordinary sessionbegins.“Everyone knows we are overwhelmedwith cases,” he said of the support justiceshave received from the assembly.He estimated that once Article 48 isreformed, changing the law “will take nolonger than three months.”Gloria Valerín, a legislator from theSocial Christian Unity Party (PUSC), toldThe Tico Times it is impossible to estimatehow long the reforms would take in theassembly. However, she expects widespreadsupport for the changes when discussionstarts in May.“It’s not a controversial topic,” shesaid. “If we want to protect constitutionaljustice, and justice that is swift and thorough…we must reduce the congestion ofthe Sala IV.”What Does the Constitutional Chamber Do?Cases addressed by the Sala IV fallinto five categories. The requirements tofile a case in each category vary,although all can be filed in person at theSupreme Court building in downtown SanJosé, by fax (295-3712, 7:30 a.m.-4:30p.m. only) or by telegram. All documentsmust include a reliable way to contact theperson filing the case.Writ of habeas corpus: the Latin for“that you have the body” is used todescribe a writ ordering that a person incustody be brought before the court, andplaces the burden of proof on thosedetaining that person. Anyone can file awrit of habeas corpus, even on behalf ofanother.Injunction Request: Any person whofeels their constitutional rights have beenviolated can file a request for an injunction.As in the case of habeas corpus, nolawyer’s signature is required, but thedocument submitted to the Sala IV shouldexplain clearly what occurred and whatperson, authority or institution violatedconstitutional rights.Motion of unconstitutionality:These motions, filed against existinglaws, must refer to a case before thecourt system. A lawyer must validate thesignature of the person filing the motion,and unless that person has a solidunderstanding of the law, a lawyer’sinput is recommended for a successfulmotion.Legislative/judicial consult: Reservedfor Legislative Assembly membersand judges.Conflict of powers: In the rare caseof disagreement over the powers of governmentbranches or offices, the Sala IVsteps in. The chamber has seen only ahandful of these cases in its 16-year history.Source: Jorge Rivera, judicial assistantto the Sala IV.

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