San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica’s Supreme Court finally has a president

Justice Zarela Villanueva, 61, on Monday became the new president of the Supreme Court after reaching the 12 votes needed win the job. She beat out justices Magda Pereira and José Manuel Arroyo, becoming the first woman to preside over Costa Rica’s Supreme Court in 187 years.

An earlier vote last week between two candidates ended in a stalemate, as none received the required 12 votes from fellow justices. Pereira was proposed as a third candidate on Monday.

Justices Arroyo and Villanueva reached an agreement last Sunday to ask Arroyo’s supporters to back Villanueva instead, Arroyo told The Tico Times.

The post of Supreme Court president remained vacant following the death of former court president Luis Paulino Mora in February. The highly respected Mora headed the Supreme Court for 14 years.

Villanueva is a specialist in agrarian law and a graduate of the University of Costa Rica. She has a master’s degree in domestic and social violence studies from the State University at a Distance.

Villanueva has worked in the judicial system for 34 years, including at the prosecutor’s office in Heredia and in civil courts in the colonial capital of Cartago, east of San José.

In 1989, she became a justice at the Labor and Family Branch of the Supreme Court. During her career, she has focused on creating access to the justice system for women and vulnerable members of society. She has promoted equality of gender before the law and within the judicial system, and she helped create specialized courts for domestic abuse cases.

She also has worked to create programs for immediate treatment of sexual abuse victims.

“My experience with gender issues allows me to say that everyone has a different obligation to society, and everyone deserves respect wherever they are, whether they’re men or women, and regardless of income, race or creed,” Villanueva told The Tico Times.

“Everyone has the right to swift justice in this institution [the judicial system], and that is my responsibility,” she added.

In recent years, judicial officials have reformed the institution’s structure with the goal of providing better service and access for citizens, Villanueva said.

During her term as president, Villanueva said she would focus on revising decision-making processes at the Supreme Court, so that decisions are appropriate, monitored and measured.

“I think we must act quickly, because until now we’ve reacted very slowly when it comes to making decisions. There have been many distractions and a lack of follow-through on processes,” she said.

She added: “This problem won’t be solved by creating more jobs, it’ll be solved by doing things differently, with better organization and by evaluating the roles that each institution in the judicial system plays.” 

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