The only founding member of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) still serving – as Supreme Court president – Luis Paulino Mora, died Sunday night at 68 in a San José hospital from complications caused by pneumonia.
Mora, who served as justice minister in the administration of Oscar Arias (1986-1990), was elected to the Sala IV in 1989 and became Supreme Court president in 1999.
“Luis Paulino gave his life to the judicial system. The effort he made as president of the court was extraordinary. As a friend and colleague for many years, [Mora’s death] is sad. It’s a loss for the country,” Sala IV Justice Fernando Cruz said in an interview this week with Radio ADN.
Mora began his career as a 25-year-old judge in 1969, after graduating with a law degree from the University of Costa Rica. He also studied at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, Spain, and the Universidad de Burdeos in France. He served in the province of Limón until 1975, when he was transferred to San José. From 1983-1985, he worked as a justice on the Penal Branch of the Supreme Court, or Sala III.
In his 14 years as president of the Supreme Court he helped modernize the institution by promoting the use of new technologies, working to streamline the resolution of conflicts and ordering internal restructuring.
“He always fought for a strong, united and independent judicial system,” President Laura Chinchilla said during an official state funeral held on Tuesday at San José’s Metropolitan Cathedral.
The cathedral was filled with friends, family and colleagues, including San José Mayor Johnny Araya, former presidents Oscar Arias and Miguel Ángel Rodríguez and several government ministers and legislators.
Among his most memorable court rulings was a 2003 vote against a constitutional amendment to allow his friend, Oscar Arias, to serve a second presidential term. In 2010, Mora, along with justices Ana Virginia Calzada and Teresita Rodríguez, voted in favor of a highly controversial mining project in Las Crucitas, in northern Costa Rica. He was one of five justices who supported the Central America-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA.
Born in Puriscal, a mountain town southwest of San José, Mora was a conservative Catholic who voted along religious and moral lines on several issues, including same-sex unions and in vitro fertilization. (He voted against the former, and in favor of banning the latter.)
When 38 lawmakers voted last November against the re-election of Justice Fernando Cruz, he led a candlelight vigil and protest march to the Legislative Assembly to defend Costa Rica’s democratic separation of powers.
“I urge legislators and the president of the republic to find a solution for this grave error, because far from redeeming the Assembly, you are burying the homeland,” Mora said in an impassioned speech before colleagues.
According to Costa Rica’s Constitution, members of a special legislative commission have 30 days to send recommendations for a replacement to the general Assembly. The election of a new justice requires the vote of at least 38 lawmakers.
Lawmaker Edgardo Araya, from the ruling National Liberation Party, told the daily La Nación that a political agreement between the various political parties in the Assembly is needed in order to reach 38 votes.
Justice Zarela Villanueva, vice president of the Supreme Court since January 2010, will temporarily assume Mora’s post until a new president is elected.
Mora reached retirement age in 2002, but kept working, telling La Nación that he was in good health and had several pending projects to finish. After his death, Chinchilla told Radio ADN that she had recommended Mora pay more attention to his health and consider retiring.
But he kept working until the day he died.