Cablegate: State Commission for Justice Reforms Final Report

Published: Tue 15 Nov 2005 05:09 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958:N/A
1. (SBU) On September 28, the State Commission for Justice
Reform submitted to President Torrijos recommendations for
in-depth changes to Panama's administration of justice
(AOJ). Many of the report's suggested reforms will require
constitutional changes. The report attempts to address
glaring shortcomings in Panama's penal code, local courts,
alternative dispute resolution, and family and probate law.
Most importantly, the report proposes a new, more
consultative method to choose magistrates to Panama's highly
discredited Supreme Court. President Torrijos formed the
commission last Spring as a way to avoid making a
politically awkward decision about judicial reform. His
reaction will show how sincere he is about finding short,
medium, and long-term fixes to a problem that is sapping
legitimacy from Panama's political system. End summary.
The "Commission"
2. (U) Reacting to mutual corruption allegations among
three Supreme Court Justices followed by demands from civil
society for the immediate removal of all nine Justices,
President Torrijos decided to form a commission to study the
problem in early March. The resulting State Commission for
Justice Reform was tasked with making recommendations for in-
depth reforms to the AOJ. The Commission included some big
names: Jerry Wilson (Legislative President), Jose Troyano
(Supreme Court Chief Justice), Ana Matilde Gomez (Attorney
General), Oscar Ceville (Solicitor General), Juan A. Tejada
(Ombudsman), Olga Golcher (Vice Minister of Government and
Justice), Carlos Vasquez (National Bar Association
President), and Magally Castillo (Pro-Justice Alliance
Executive Director). It arguably represents Panama's first
serious attempt in its history to begin to correct an AOJ
system widely seen as dangerously broken.
Access to justice
3. (U) The report recommends replacing the notoriously
uneducated, politically motivated "corregidores" and "night
courts" with professionally trained Justices of Peace. The
report also would:
- make public defenders' salaries independent of the central
judicial budget and to push alternative dispute resolution
to decrease court workload;
- encourage pro-bono legal work by law firms;
- ask the National Bar Association to provide legal
counseling to support public defenders;
- improve legal instruments to protect "vulnerable groups"
such as women, children and indigenous people, especially in
domestic violence and abuse cases;
- establish a Constitutional Court comprising three Supreme
Court Justices to decrease the Court's workload and expedite
constitutional cases.
Comprehensive reform to penal jurisdiction
4. (U) The report strongly recommends completely new
policies to prevent and repress criminal behavior, such as
Penal Code changes to speed administration of justice,
amendments to the Procedural Code to separate civil and
penal processes, and general updates to penal law. The
report highly recommends amendments to the Judicial
Technical Police law (PTJ). (Note: the current PTJ law is
confusing. The PTJ --equivalent to the U.S. FBI-- Director
General is appointed by the Chief Justice and can only be
removed by the Supreme Court, yet his/her immediate
supervisor is the Attorney General, who is not a member of
the Judicial Branch, but of the Public Ministry, which works
separately from the Judiciary. End note.)
Structural reforms of the AOJ system: new system to appoint
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Supreme Court Justices
5. (U) The proposals include:
- Re-designing the judicial disciplinary system for the
Attorney General, Solicitor General, and all judges and
prosecutors to prevent undue influence by superior judges on
rulings and/or personnel;
- Implementing a new system for appointing Supreme Court
Justices that would include a Special Commission to pre-
select candidates for Supreme Court Justice, Attorney
General and Solicitor General. The Special Commission
(including non-governmental legal experts) would meet when
vacancies occur. After screening the candidates (anyone
could apply), the Commission would send the President at
least 10 and no more than 15 names for each position open;
- Implementing a civil service career with a scientific
personnel evaluation system at the Public Ministry to
recruit highly-qualified human resources to provide job
- Updating judicial training;
- Creating new courts and prosecutors' offices throughout
the country;
- Implementing updated managerial and financial systems at
the Judicial Branch and the Public Ministry to guarantee
administrative and financial autonomy for expedited justice;
Accountability of and transparency by AOJ officers
--------------------------------------------- -----
6. (U) The report recommends allowing public access to
information judicial performance.
It recommends:
- Regular judicial and public ministry audits and an
immediate national inventory of pending cases;
- Fewer constraints in Public Ministry investigations;
- More funds for Anti-Corruption prosecutors and for
training and workshops on corruption and ethics.
Jurisdictional reforms
7. (U) Procedural and jurisdictional reforms for expedited
justice recommended are:
- Updates of commercial courts enforcing respect for
consumers' rights;
- Modifications to the Family, Children and Youth Courts'
jurisdiction to enforce protection of victims;
- Re-drafting of poorly-defined norms in the labor legal
- Creating an audit department for the two existing maritime
courts in the country.
Constitutional reforms
8. (U) The Commission's most important and in-depth
recommendations will require constitutional changes, such
- To establish a Judicature Council to exclusively handle
all administrative affairs of the Judicial Branch (e.g.
human resources issues, salary scales, promotions,
disciplinary actions, etc.);
- To define a new appointment system for Supreme Court
Justices (see para 5);
- To amend the AOJ budget so that it is not subject to cuts
by other government branches;
- To clarify the Attorney General and the Solicitor
General's duties to avoid duplications;
- To re-define the systems for monthly transfers of
appropriations by the Executive branch to Judicial branch
accounts on time to avoid current delays;
- To make more transparent impeachment process against
Supreme Court Magistrates by the National Assembly;
- To establish a Constitutional Tribunal, separate from the
current Supreme Justice, that would exclusively see
constitutional cases, which usually require immediate
Civil Society's reactions to the Commission's report
--------------------------------------------- -------
9. (SBU) Despite President Torrijos's public commitments
that he would study the report thoroughly and would take
into serious consideration its recommendations, public
reaction about the report's implementation and/or efficacy
ranged from skeptical to hopeful. The Ecumenical Committee
of Panama publicly warned President Torrijos that it would
be a "mockery to Panamanian society" if he does not make the
recommended changes. Well-known Catholic priest Nestor Jaen
was more optimistic about the GOP's good will, but warned
about the immediate need for changing the appointment system
for Supreme Court Justices, as two vacancies will open soon.
Former National Bar Association President Jose Alvarez
stated that only in-depth constitutional reforms would bring
about positive change, and the Pro-Justice Alliance
published an announcement in local dailies informing society
that it would monitor Torrijos implementing the reforms or
10. (SBU) The Commission did a thorough job in its 161-page
report, which includes technical and political reforms that,
for the better, if carried out, would totally transform of
the AOJ system in Panama. However, significant financing is
necessary to enact many of the suggested reforms. When the
Family Code was passed in 1995, the GOP estimated that at
least 80 family courts were needed. Ten years later, only
20 family courts have been opened due to lack of resources.
11. (SBU) Many of the reforms require political decisions by
President Torrijos. With civil society demanding immediate
changes to the system for appointing justices, which would
cost little, Torrijos could be in a position to accept them.
Many expect that he will. However, constitutional changes
recommended by the Commission, which are legally not easy to
do, would allow for some financial independence of the
Judicial Branch. It remains to be seen if a powerful
presidential branch is willing to lose control over the
judicial budget when traditionally, the Executive branch
unilaterally reduces the AOJ budget even before submitting
it to the National Assembly where further cuts are made. In
the month that has passed since the report was submitted,
there has been no news on GOP action. With sensitive Social
Security reforms currently under discussion possible to be
submitted to the National Assembly in December 2005 the
timing may not be the best for Torrijos to implement most of
the recommended reforms as his attention would be focused on
controversial CSS changes.
Eaton #
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