San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Sala IV: Guardian of Citizens’ Rights

Since its establishment in 1989, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, better known as the Sala IV, has been central to all political and rights questions in the country.

Led by 50-year-old Fernando Castillo, the newly appointed Sala IV president, and six other magisterial guardians of constitutional rights, the Sala IV has among the most comprehensive powers of any Latin American court.

Over the course of a year, Castillo and his colleagues on the court will hear more than  20,000 cases, which can be filed by anyone in Costa Rica (regardless of age, gender or nationality) at any time of the day, 365 days a year, without the need for legal representation or fees.

The Tico Times interviews Castillo, the man responsible for holding to account those in breach of the constitution, limiting the actions of other branches of government and supporting individuals and groups from every sector of society – from prisoner to president.

TT: Please describe a normal working day for you in the Sala IV.

FC: After going for a run in the morning, I get to the office at about 8 a.m. and usually don’t finish until 6 or 7 p.m. Work can be intense and stressful, and it often means that lunch is eaten in a rush. The Sala IV is very much like a car rally in the sense that the work is forever coming round with no let-up. We vote on cases every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and, obviously, we have to study all of these cases beforehand and understand how the law applies to each of them before voting. We also often study similar cases from the United States Supreme Court or from Canada, not only as a point of reference but also to get a comparative point of view. I like to think my integrity and my ability to walk the streets safely is guaranteed by the fact that I am ethical and I always respect the deadlines of these cases.

Is there a particular law court system that you admire?

The reality is that we are all very different. If you consider the U.S. Supreme Court, which chooses and deals with approximately 100 major cases a year, compared with the 20,000 or so that we deal with, you can see the difference. The U.S. Supreme court, in this sense, is able to take more time with its cases, whereas here we are forced into round-the-clock shift work to get things done.

In which case, why doesn’t the Sala IV pass on lower priority cases to maller courts, as they do in the U.S.?

This is the major criticism we face. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, we are obliged to take on and resolve all our cases.

The problem is that it causes an excessive workload and, of course, when there is too much quantity, one loses quality. There have been proposals to change the way this works and make the Sala IV more selective regarding the cases it accepts, but for this to happen would require a constitutional reform.

Another proposal is that that we divide the seven magistrates between two salas (chambers), with each sala specializing in certain cases and, therefore, halving the workload. This proposal has been forwarded to the Legislative Assembly, but the problem is that there is a government recess in December, so we just have to wait and see what happens when they restart in February. What’s important to remember is that the Sala IV can’t reform itself.

What makes a good magistrate?

The most important thing is a commitment to the values and principles of the constitution. The constitution is something designed and created by politicians, and it is something that magistrates have to respect. Of course, an interest in law and study is also key, as is understanding the importance of upholding the law whether you agree with it or not.

Recently there has been talk of removing the church’s involvement in politics. As a religious man, what are your thoughts on this?

I am unable to discuss specific cases, I’m afraid.

What have you set out to achieve in your new position?

I would like to look back in years to come when I am no longer in this position and say that we achieved our objectives and worked competently. Our critics have said before that politics can get in the way of our jobs, so I would like to ensure that the Constitutional Chamber always remains independent of politics and that it concentrates on guaranteeing the fundamental rights of the people of the republic and interpreting and upholding the constitution.

You have been reported as saying that the biggest problem that Costa Rica faces is an intellectual one. What exactly do you mean by this?

God has blessed Costa Rica in the sense that we have all the diversity and human resources necessary to be a first-world country, yet we are much less developed than certain other countries with fewer resources. Our achievement curve is low while our imagination curve soars. We are a nation of dreamers, and I consider it a type of mental limitation that holds us back from actually becoming a first-world country, for we certainly don’t lack the excellence or drive.

Since the creation of the Sala IV in 1989, what would you consider to be its greatest weakness and its greatest strength?

Since its conception in 1989, the fundamental rights of the people of the republic have been protected and this is something we can be proud of. If someone is ill, for example, and in urgent need of help, that person can come to the Sala Constitutional and ask for direct help and attention, which we can then organize.

The sala’s weaknesses would have to be the excessive workload, the fact that laws can change rapidly and, therefore, at times contradict each other, and finally, the fact that our rulings aren’t always adhered too, which of course is a very serious problem.

You have been reported as saying you have never had a cellular phone, yet there is one on your desk. Have you succumbed?

In this new role of mine, every seventh weekend I have to be on 24-hour standby – rather like a doctor – and for this reason I now must have one. I don’t like them because I believe it is important to reflect on work and certain decisions, and a cell phone interrupts this peace.

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