MANAGUA – The Sandinistas’ attempt to convoke a new session of the Supreme Court using substitute judges has led to a situation of “complete chaos” in Nicaragua’s sullied judicial system, according to former top magistrates and legal analysts. After months of threatening to replace boycotting opposition magistrates with alternate judges, acting Supreme Court President Alba Luz Ramos last week appointed seven lawyers (five of whom are Sandinistas) to fill the bench as substitutes.
The Sandinistas argue that the substitute judges are needed to make the high court operational again to attend to the mounting pile of cases that have gone untouched during the ongoing political paralysis of the Supreme Court.
The Sandinista-administered court also suspended pay and benefits to the opposition judges and fired members of their staffs, redirecting those salaries to the substitute magistrates.
“We can’t pay people who don’t work,” Ramos told reporters.
The substitute judges took the bench alongside de facto magistrates Armengol Cuadra and Rafael Solís – the two Sandinistas whose periods ended last April but remain in office under a presidential decree that extended their terms (NT, April 23). Cuadra this week was appointed the new president of the Supreme Court’s Penal Tribunal.
Legal analysts claim the judicial situation in Nicaragua has gone from bad to worse to ludicrous.
“The Supreme Court has become a complete circus,” said former Supreme Court president Roberto Argüello (1979-1985), who served as the top judge during the revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s. “The judges are usurpers and everything that they do is legally null and void.” For Argüello, the new Sandinista government’s manipulation of the judicial system is not only objectionable, but a dangerous violation of the constitution and the country’s young democracy.
“I have been a lawyer for 55 years and I have never seen an anomaly like this – not even during the government of (former dictator Anastasio) Somoza,” Argüello told The Nica Times this week. “The OAS (Organization of American States) should intervene because this is a coup d’état against the court. The entire judicial branch of government does not work.”
Alejandro Serrano, who succeeded Argüello as president of the Supreme Court from 1985-1989, agrees that the Sandinistas’ “illegal” use of substitute judges in the high court has created a “crisis without precedent” in Nicaragua’s shaky judicial system. Serrano said the Sandinistas’ judicial power play has created a “de facto situation” in the nation’s highest court, setting a terrible example for the rest of the judicial system.
Predictably, the Sandinista judges in lower courts were quick to back their party’s line. Gerardo Rodríguez, president of the Managua Appeals Tribunal (TAM), defended the legality of the substitute judges in the Supreme Court and blamed opposition judges from the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) for trying to politicize the judicial system.
The PLC returned the blame. The opposition party said in a press release this week that the Sandinistas’ use of substitute judges is comparable to a “coup” against the Supreme Court – a consolidation of power that gives Ortega’s party complete control over the judicial system. PLC party leaders met with foreign embassies and leaders of international organizations in Managua this week to complain about the alleged illegalities of the Sandinista government.
The PLC also repeated its support for the six opposition judges who have boycotted the Supreme Court over the continued presence of ex-judges Cuadra and Solís. The PLC asked the two newly appointed opposition replacement judges – PLC party members Ignacio Mirando and Félix Pedro Ocampo – to not answer the Sandinista summons by assuming seats on the bench.
“Think about your children and your grandchildren and don’t get involved in this disastrous game by Orteguismo and the Supreme Court,” said PLC spokesman Leonel Teller. “There is no excuse under the sun to attend this session convoked by the dictator.”
The United States government also issued a strong criticism of Nicaragua’s judicial system this month. According to the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism: “Nicaragua’s judiciary remained highly politicized, corrupt, and prone to manipulation by political elites and organized crime and therefore remained a vulnerability that could be exploited by international terrorist groups.”
Although the State Department’s criticism is not specifically related to the latest crisis involving substitute judges, it speaks to a deeper problem of institutional corruption.
For Serrano, Nicaragua’s “snowballing crisis” in the Supreme Court is symptomatic of a “generalized institutional crisis in the country.” He noted that many state offices and government branches are struggling with issues of credibility due to Ortega’s polemic presidential decree 3-2010, which extended terms of office for 24 top judges, electoral magistrates and other appointed officials until replacements are named by the legislative National Assembly.
The decree – known as “el decretazo” – has been blasted by Ortega’s opponents as an illegal usurpation of power by Ortega to maintain his cronies in top government posts in a de facto situation. Ortega and his supporters insist the decree was necessary to maintain stability and a working government until the National Assembly can name replacements.
But the National Assembly, which has been on recess since mid July, remains too divided to vote on new officials, all of whom should have been appointed months ago.
The Sandinistas have been scrambling to come up with the 56 votes – 60 percent of lawmakers – needed to re-elect the current officials and reform to the constitution to allow Ortega’s re-election. Sandinista congressman Edwin Castro insists his party only has 40 votes – a far cry from the number it needs to run the table.
But opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre says Castro is downplaying his party’s legislative clout. The PLC secretary insists that when push comes to shove, the Sandinista alliance has 52 votes – just four shy of what they need to take full control of the National Assembly.
For now, however, the legislature remains divided and ineffective, forcing the Sandinista government to invent other means (presidential decrees and executive decisions) to keep their people in key posts.
Serrano said that Judge Ramos’ decision to appoint replacement judges is similar to Ortega’s decretazo in that it’s not based in the law.
“They are inverting cause and effect,” Serrano said. “Once the court is convoked, it can convene substitute judges, but they can’t call on substitute judges to convoke a session of the court.”
Serrano said the whole legal situation of Nicaragua’s government institutions has become “completely surreal because all the arguments are twisted around incredibly.”
The problem, he said, is that most Nicaraguans aren’t familiar enough with constitutional law to realize how absurd the situation in their country has become.
And as long as most people don’t feel directly or immediately affected by the unraveling of their constitution democracy, most will remain unaware of just how serious Nicaragua’s crisis of governability has become, Serrano said.