Newly Elected Justices Face Challenges in Bolivian Judiciary Reform

Bolivia swore in 56 new justices on January 3, 2012. Their daunting task is to reshape the face of the Bolivian judiciary in accordance with the new constitution. The president and other MAS party officials spoke with high hopes about the judges’ inauguration. President of the Legislative Assembly, Hector Arce, expressed his belief that this judiciary could correct the wrongs of the past by being dignified, efficient, transparent and independent. [i]

The new justices begin their terms on the courts without widespread public support. In the historic, first nationwide judicial elections on October 16, 57.8% of the ballots cast were either nullified or blank.[ii] Opponents of the majority-ruling MAS party actively campaigned for voters to void their ballots,[iii] and claim that the null and blank votes won the election. The administration and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, (TSE), reject this idea. Immediately following the elections, TSE president, Wilfredo Ovando, announced to voters that the election was not a referendum, and did not give voters the opportunity to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but instead offered them a choice of candidates. [iv] In actuality, the electoral law clearly states that the winner in judicial elections will be the candidate who receives the highest number of valid votes.[v] Still, the large percentage of null and blank ballots called the authority of the winning candidates into question before they had even begun to hear cases.

In addition to earning the support of a skeptical public, the new magistrates a face series of other concrete challenges as they seek to reform Bolivia’s judiciary:

  • A daunting caseload awaits their consideration. In 2011, the Bolivian Supreme court ruled on 2,206 cases. Approximately 29,000 cases are now pending.
  • Unprecedented diversity among the newly elected magistrates means judges will have to navigate new territory. Of the winning candidates, 50% are female, and 40% indigenous.[vi] Though officials are celebrating these ratios, the change comes with challenges. In his address to the new justices, the president put pressure on justices of indigenous backgrounds to prove themselves fit for the job: “if you make errors on the job, the integrity of the campesino movement will be compromised.” [vii] And already, there is controversy surrounding the election of the president of the Constitutional Tribunal; after Justice Ruddy Flores won the role of president of the tribunal, Justice Gualberto Cusi, who received the most votes in the national elections, said the selection of Flores had been discriminatory and accused the Morales administration of intervening.[viii]
  • There will be attempts to influence the new judges. President Morales urged the newly elected judges not to let interest groups sway them: “Don’t let interest groups affect your impartiality. You are going to face pressure from social movements.”[ix]
  • Bolivia’s judiciary has been historically underfunded, The newly sworn-in officials have expressed concerns about insufficient budgets.
  • The new justices cannot resolve their caseload efficiently without new legislation in place. At the swearing in, Justice Jorge Von Borries spoke on behalf of the new justices and demanded that the legislature approve new rules to accelerate the application of justice.[x] Justice Von Borries suggested that if all trials were oral as criminal trials now are, it would not only increase transparency, but would also help address endemic judicial delay.

As with most judicial reform initiatives, the impact of this new electoral initiative and other legal changes will be difficult to evaluate in the short term.  The new justices have inherited many challenges. Hopefully, they will receive the independence, support and respect from the Bolivian citizenry necessary to tackle their daunting mission.

[i] Agencia Boliviana de Informacion (ABI), “Arce: Instauración de nuevo Órgano Judicial corregirá males de la justicia tradicional,” 4/01/2012.  Arce: “Yo creo que como nunca antes las autoridades que han sido posesionadas por el presidente Evo Morales tienen la posibilidad de construir una nueva justicia y corregir los males de la justicia tradicional. … Las nuevas autoridades judiciales tienen que construir una nueva justicia, deben cumplir con toda la reingeniería de cambio, una justicia digna, pronta, transparente e independiente.”

[ii] Los Tiempos, “Votos nulos blancos alcanzan 60%,” 11/11/2011.

[iii] See AIN’s previous memo: “Bolivian Judicial Elections Provoke Controversy and Criticism.”

[iv] Los Tiempos, “Presidente de Tribunal Electoral aclara que elecciones judiciales no fueron plebiscito o referendo,” 18/10/2011.

[v] Ley del Regimen Electoral, “Articulo 79. (Organizacion de la votación).  I.  … Será electo como Magistrada o Magistrado titular en cada Departamento la candidata o candidato que obtenga el mayor número de votos válidos de las dos listas. II. … Las Magistradas o Magistrados titulares serán las y los siete (7) postulantes que obtengan el mayor número de votos válidos.  III. … Las Consejeras o Consejeros titulares serán las y los cinco (5) postulantes que obtengan el mayor número de votos válidos. IV. …Las Magistradas o Magistrados titulares serán las o los siete (7) postulantes que obtengan el mayor número de votos válidos.”

[vi] Agencia Boliviana de Informacion (ABI), “Arce: Instauración de nuevo Órgano Judicial corregirá males de la justicia tradicional,” 4/01/2012.

[vii] Pagina Siete, “El Presidente alerta a los magistrados de ‘presiones’,” 3/1/2012. Morales: “Si ustedes se equivocan, este movimiento campesino ya no será visto como la reserva moral.”

[viii] La Razon, “Cusi ve injerencia del Gobierno en el Tribunal Constitucional,” 06/01/2012.

[ix] Pagina Siete, “El Presidente alerta a los magistrados de ‘presiones’,” 3/1/2012. “No entren al cuoteo, seguramente van a afrontar eso, van a tener presiones de los movimientos sociales.”

[x] Pagina Siete, “Nuevos Magistrados piden leyes para acelerar la justicia,” 3/01/2012.