Remarks by the President of the Supreme Court of Justice on the occasion of the opening of judicial year 1999

Once again we are met together, by mandate of the law, to solemnly begin the act that opens the judicial year open.

On holding this solemn act, the judicial branch of government, following tradition, considers that it is the opportunity to present a review of activity during the preceding year. For this reason permit me to report to the public on what we have done, and on our deficiencies and mention what is still to be done, explaining how this High Court has complied with the powers that the Constitution and the laws have conferred on it.

The Supreme Court of Justice, over and above its obligations, has taken on the task of initiating a complex and ambitious modernization plan, thus effectively accepting the challenge of reforming itself and acting as the driving force of the judicial change that the country is demanding. The reform process, which we began in December 1996, has now reached a satisfactory level of development. In 1999 the country will begin to see and benefit from the effects of these changes.

The strategy assumed by the Supreme Court is based on the Full Court Agreement of December 5, 1996, which, in addition to making a diagnosis of the judicial branch, sets out the proposed changes at the level of organization, legislation, budget, discipline and inspection. To implement these measures a Supreme Court Modernization Project was designed with technical and economic assistance from the World Bank and a generous grant from the Government of Japan.

We have made use of the legal initiative in the preparation and presentation of bills in relation to judicial matters. We have actively participated in information programs on the new legislation. We have held important working meetings with Congress, the Public Prosecutor (Ministerio Público), the Council of the Judiciary, with all the judges, and non-governmental organizations. We have actively participated in the international organizations related to the judiciary. We have begun the task of informing the public about judicial procedures and have published the first of the Judicial Notebooks (Cuadernos Judiciales): Electoral Appeals, as a means of promoting civic education in relation to the recent elections. Now at the printer are the notebooks on: Civil Appeals; Criminal Appeals and Appeals for Unconstitutionality.

Given the importance of the Court's activities, I will briefly review some of them.


To implement this important project, the Supreme Court held in 1997 an international bidding process to contract a consortium to develop a global strategic study, which was one of the key elements of the modernization project.

The Full Court awarded the contract to the consortium formed by the consulting firms IESA (Venezuelan) and DPK Consulting (USA), which began work on April 21, 1998. During that year, in a joint effort with the Justices of the High Court, the diagnoses, evaluation and reorganization proposals for the Supreme Court were completed, and immediately implemented.

The proposals of the Global Strategic Study prepared for the Court identify four fundamental aspects that need to be addressed:

1.- Institutional Policy

This component is intended to assist the Full Court with the coordination of the national judicial policy, including investigation, evaluation of the performance of the system, legislative initiatives and informing civil society.

The diagnosis of this component identified three areas of action for the Supreme Court: coordination of national judicial policy, case-law support for the judges of the Republic, and how the Court should handle its external relations.

2.- Judicial Activity

This aim of this component is the re-engineering of the Divisions (Salas) of the Supreme Court by reforming the organization and procedures and practices used to process cases and prepare decisions.

The diagnosis of this component concluded that the Divisions of the Supreme Court are management bodies, with processes that operate independently of each other. Moreover, there are important differences between the appeals heard by each Division and the judicial procedures they use.

3.- Publication of Decisions

This component is based on the publication and dissemination of the decisions of the Supreme Court.

Since its creation the Fundación Gaceta Forense (Forensic Gazette Foundation) has been of immense importance in providing users with information on High Court decisions for the years 1947-1990. In 1997 the Documentary Information Center was created to recover the historical archives of the Supreme Court and store them in an electronic memory base.

In February, Gaceta Forense will have 350,000 digitized pages on decisions issued by this High Court for the years 1887 to 1926 and 1994 to 1999.

4.- Administrative and Managerial Support

This component involves the total reorganization of this important area of services and support for the other components, with a view to improving the effectiveness of the internal administrative services that help the Justices in their work.

An international adviser was incorporated into the work of the Court, with responsibility for the modernization project, to act as counterpart to the national team and to make a study of judicial expenditure in Venezuela. This study will analyze the structure of public spending in the justice sector, the dynamics of the process of the preparation of the budget and historical trends in this area. The results will be published in February this year.

A Support Unit for the Modernization Project was structured into five areas: special projects; training and preparation; census of cases; participation of civil society; and image and communication.

In the framework of the Modernization Project, the Supreme Court Divisions adopted separate measures to improve provision of the justice service. A case census was made in each Division to determine the exact number in process, how many enter each year, which ones are subject to procedural delay, efficiency in comparison with other years, and above all the exact reasons for the delays in processing. The Divisions were equipped with more computers and equipment, and training courses were held for the personnel to improve the use of the new work tools and technology. The effects of the application of these simple measures have been immediately noted: the Justices have been relieved of useless tasks and the performance of their support staff has improved.

The digitization of the daily account of the offices of the Divisions and the Substantiation Court and the publication of decisions has greatly expanded the reach and transparency of High Court proceedings; today any person with access to a computer can obtain information through the Supreme Court web page.

The Court created a Special Tax Division and two special divisions in the Criminal Appeal Division to facilitate the implementation of the new Organic Code of Criminal Procedure. Another special division in the Civil Appeal Division increased the number of decisions issued in the year and improved the work of the Court.


Ibero-American Summit of Supreme Court Presidents

This year the Ibero-American Summit of the highest judicial authorities was held in Caracas with representatives from its 23 member states and some 50 national and international observers. The highly positive results were embodied in a transcendental document known as the "Caracas Declaration," which included 32 recommendations on judicial policy, which have been incorporated into national judicial policy by the member states attending the summit.

To give permanence to the Caracas Declaration, the Ibero-American countries created a Technical Unit to follow up the recommendations of the Declaration. The Unit held its first meeting last October in Venezuela to establish its position on the results of the follow up of the priority subjects. The meeting also decided on the action to be taken by member states in relation to the second meeting of Supreme Court Presidents on March 24, 25 and 26, 1999 in Caracas. Eight trial court judges from each member state will participate in this event as observers to prepare for the execution of the agreements and to promote compliance with the Caracas Declaration and the agreements reached by the II Ibero-American Summit of Supreme Court Presidents in their respective countries.

The second summit will evaluate compliance with the policies and actions contained in the Caracas Declaration, in relation to the areas defined in the I Technical Follow-up Meeting: judicial organization, corruption, drug trafficking and human rights, and set up an Ibero-American judicial network that will initially manage information on these four areas defined as essential.

Organization of Supreme Courts of the Americas

The Organization of Supreme Courts of the Americas, created in 1996, had the courtesy to honor me with the presidency of this organization for the coming years. The mandate given me includes the creation of a Center for Exchange of Information on Judicial Matters (decisions, judicial administration, laws on judicial questions). If we succeed in realizing this aspiration, along with the Training Center for Judicial Officials of America, which is now being promoted by the Supreme Court of Venezuela through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we will become a valid reference for the modernization of justice in the Americas.

In addition to these activities, the Supreme Court has issued more and better decisions than in many previous years. The seriousness of the judgments issued by this high court is appreciated in most of the countries of the continent, as shown by the constant visits to our Web page.

The task completed is detailed in the 1998 Report and can be synthesized as 5,659 cases entered and 3,999 decisions in appeals filed with the Court which terminate these actions.

From a formal point of view this has been one of the Court's most productive years, although the common citizen does not see it that way; the criticism made of the judicial branch - including the Supreme Court itself - is as strong as ever. This situation allows me to make some reflections, which I hope we can share and discuss with openness and dialogue. These words have no other purpose than to call for a reflection on the future of our country.

The situation in the judicial branch of government is not isolated from the situation in the country. It is simply more obvious, and thus its position appears to be particularly serious since it has become the receptacle and mirror of what all society perceives as the principle shortcomings and failures of our democracy.

Why? Because in a state of law, the fundamental rights and liberties of the citizen are guaranteed in the Constitution, which cannot be seen merely as a text that formally organizes the state and attributes powers to the public authorities. Today, in Venezuela no one considers the Constitution as the statute of government and the separation of powers. Although the link between these two concepts exists in the Constitution and national legislation, in everyday reality the courts and the Supreme Court itself have not found a way to integrate them. Venezuelans ask what is happening in the judicial branch, which in response to the exorbitant cost of the financial crisis has not managed to find those responsible and has even denaturalized the offenses to the extreme of considering them as minor. On the other side of the coin, the jails are overcrowded with delinquents who clamor to be tried and who reject the inhuman conditions imposed on them.

We judges are blamed for public insecurity because we release delinquents and do not punish corrupt or incompetent police. If there is no health service, it is expected that an action to protect a violated constitutional right (amparo) will restore it. If doctors and teachers are poorly paid, they go to the courts to get satisfaction for their claims. If there is no legal certainty for the investor the judicial branch is expected to provide it. And for years, on an alarming number of occasions, the courts have had to settle cases of electoral fraud at the ballot box.

What is the weakness of the judicial branch? The answer is that it is incapable of solving by itself what should be done with capacity, knowledge, skill and firmness by the government of the Republic: that is in a joint effort by all three branches of government.

The courts will never be able to end corruption, delinquency, failings in health and education, if the public authorities in the political sense do not effectively exercise national sovereignty.

This is the third time that I feel the need to mention the urgency of undertaking with clarity and firmness the changes that the country is demanding. Today everyone is talking about the possibility of holding a constituent assembly and the need to create a new state. The Supreme Court has attempted under my presidency to begin the reform of the judicial branch and the Supreme Court itself. We mentioned earlier the work being done by the Court in this respect. We have intentionally used harsh and truthful criticism to make known our diagnosis of the situation in the judicial branch of the courts and of our judges. The position of the organization that I preside is reflected in a variety of documents, statements and agreements. The Court has insisted on the need for a far-reaching reform of the organization and distribution of powers; the selection, appointment, control and training of judges; and the performance of the judiciary. It has identified the laws that need to be reformed, and has presented bills to Congress and is preparing others.

We have also indicated the need to end the fever for diagnoses. We have all we need, we have no need of any more, and we have made this known to the international organizations interested in participating in the Venezuelan experience. It is dangerous to continue with this game of diagnoses, and the competition to have the latest report that shows that the situation is even more serious. It is dangerous because it leads to pessimism, inaction and lack of self-esteem.

To combat this unhealthy tendency we have indicated what paths need to be followed, the solutions that must be adopted and the work to be done. Yet, when this Court attempted to assume responsibilities in the absence of objective information on the judges, their performance, the situation in the courts, with a view to proposing legislative measures, important personalities in public life withheld the political support needed to assume the leading role in the reorganization of the judicial branch. There were others who even threatened us with dismissal from office if we insisted on our position, and others had the audacity tell us how to how we should act.

I do not intend to apologize here for the judges, or assume their unrestricted defense, each one's situation in the judicial branch is contained in the Report on activity in 1998.

I consider that the intensification of the reforms already begun and the start of others cannot be delayed. Although necessary, formal or procedural reforms are not enough, the process must create a judicial branch that is responsive to the democratic state and satisfies the need for justice of Venezuelans.

Mr. President, president of Congress and deputies and senators, members of the judiciary, citizens, we will not speak more of the defects of the judicial branch, its deficiencies and shortcomings or of how bad it is. We will not continue to denigrate the State that we have. We have all the diagnoses and we all know what they are. It is time to stop using our incapacity and lack of political will as an excuse for not assuming the arduous task ahead.

If we restrict ourselves to isolated reforms, the results will also be isolated. The new Organic Code of Criminal Procedure is a gigantic step in the criminal area, but insufficient if not accompanied by the urgent adaptation of the courts, the Office of the Public Prosecutor and the preparation and education of citizens; otherwise we run the risk that in a very short time it could be another source of frustration that triggers unpredictable social conflicts.

I do not want to miss the opportunity, in view of the expectations that the newly elected representatives of the sovereign people have created through the vote in the elections on November 6 and December 8, to make some comments I believe should be taken into account.

The intelligence of all leaders -- whether in the legislative, executive or judicial branches -- lies in their capacity to understand the forces of society and to draw positive energy from them in an effort to make the important social changes needed through transparent government and democratic participation, by creating laws and political administrative organization, which reflect a state in evolution and development. Even the most revolutionary change is part of a process of transparency that has to take into account what it means to be Venezuelan in a country like ours.

Political agreement is essential for solving political problems, but when this is insufficient for resolving the political contradictions inside the State, the Supreme Court cannot be expected to act politically. The Court will act constitutionally and juridically by applying the Constitution and the other laws of the Republic, although the consequences are felt in the political arena. When the Court interprets a law it resolves a conflict between individuals or between public bodies, it pronounces juridically although the result may have economic or political effects, which restrict freedom.

In the midst of political difficulties and an institutional crisis, Venezuela has inclined toward a constitutionalism that is not limited to diffuse adherence to a constitutional text but which is demanding that the declared supremacy of the Constitution be juridically guaranteed. This constitutionalism becomes a tangible reality when it calls on the Supreme Court to be the vigilant guardian of the supremacy and full force of the Constitution, state constitutions and national laws, and of the interpretation and scope that should be given to the reform, the proposed amendment, the referendum and the Constituent Assembly itself. The Constitutionalism now being proposed in Venezuela is not opposed to popular sovereignty, it is attempting to strike a balance between the Constitution with respect to the adjudication and attribution of powers to the different branches of government and the original sovereignty of the people.

The Supreme Court of Justice of Venezuela is committed to the modernization and reform of the judicial branch; there is no going back. In the jurisdictional sphere we will always act with absolute independence of criterion and autonomy. We are the guarantors of the rule of law and as such we will act.


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