The ICJ expresses deep concern that the Legislative Assembly of Bolivia continues to threaten three Constitutional Court judges with removal, and possibly criminal punishment, based solely on legislators’ disagreement with a legal opinion and ruling issued by the judges.
A “trial” of the three judges conducted by the Senate is scheduled to begin on 4 December 2014.
The ICJ has previously condemned the proceedings as fundamentally flawed and in violation of international standards for the independence of judges.
The legislature and government now appear to accept some of the ICJ’s criticisms.
Last-minute legislative amendments would apparently specify that the legislative assembly process is disciplinary in character and that the only sanction the assembly can directly impose is permanently to remove judges from office; if a disciplinary violation is found, the case would be referred onward for criminal prosecution before the ordinary courts. (Legislators were previously reported to be seeking for the Senate itself to impose a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.)
The ICJ reaffirms, however, that the case against these three judges remains inherently flawed because the allegations on which the proceedings are based cannot be a valid basis for any removal from office or criminal punishment.
“It is fundamental to the independence of the judiciary, and the rule of law, that judges must be able to decide cases without fear of punishment for their legal opinions and rulings, including those that the government or legislature may not like,” said Matt Pollard, Head of the Centre for Independence of Judges and Lawyers at the ICJ.
“The procedural amendments under consideration could be an improvement for other kinds of cases in the future,” said Pollard. “However, the stated reason for pursuing these three judges – disagreement with the content of their legal opinion and ruling – cannot form a valid basis for their removal from office or criminal punishment under any procedure.”
“The case against these three judges cannot be cured by legislative ‘quick fixes’ and must simply be dropped immediately,” Pollard added.
The ICJ is also concerned that the legislature has said it will press ahead immediately with the “trial” on 4 December, a few days from now, while fundamental changes to the procedure are still underway.
Further, the media has reported that Chamber of Deputies President Marcelo Elío has stated that the judges could avoid trial by “voluntarily” resigning before 4 December.
It would be unacceptable to use the threat of unjust or unclear procedures to pressure a judge to resign.
The ICJ welcomes the decision by the legislature to review and potentially reform judicial accountability procedures in Bolivia.
At the same time, reform of procedures that are of such fundamental importance to the rule of law and democracy should be based on a process of broader consultation with all concerned stakeholders, and more considered, comprehensive and detailed assessment and analysis in relation to international standards.
For instance, under the new amendments, it would appear that the Senate (photo) has no option in any case to impose a disciplinary penalty less than permanent removal from office, even if this would be disproportionate.
Placing all responsibility for disciplinary proceedings with an independent Judicial Council should also be considered.
In October, the ICJ sent an open letter and analysis brief to members of the Legislative Assembly, explaining why the proceedings violate international law and standards, urging that proceedings against the three judges immediately be ended, and recommending a process of longer-term reform of judicial accountability processes in Bolivia.
English: Matt Pollard, Head of the Centre for Independence of Judges and Lawyers at the ICJ, t: +41 79 246 54 75; e: matt.pollard(a)icj.org
Spanish: Carlos Ayala, ICJ Commissioner, t: +58 212 952 8448; e: carlos.ayala(a)icj.org
Bolivia-Procedimento magistrados-News-Press Release-2014-SPA (full text in PDF)
(Update: the proceedings were suspended on 4 December, and are to continue on 9 December)NewsPress releases