Panama Table of Contents
The Constitution establishes the Supreme Court as the highest judicial body in the land. Judges must be Panamanian by birth, be at least thirty-five years of age, hold a university degree in law, and have practiced or taught law for at least ten years. The number of members of the court is not fixed by the Constitution. In late 1987, there were nine justices, divided into three chambers, for civil, penal, and administrative cases, with three justices in each chamber. Judges (and their alternates) are nominated by the Cabinet Council and subject to confirmation by the Legislative Assembly. They serve for a term of ten years. Article 200 of the Constitution provides for the replacement of two judges every two years. The court also selects its own president every two years.
The Constitution defines the Supreme Court as the guardian of "the integrity of the Constitution." In consultation with the attorney general, it has the power to determine the constitutionality of all laws, decrees, agreements, and other governmental acts. The court also has jurisdiction over cases involving actions or failure to act by public officials at all levels. There are no appeals from decisions by the court.
Other legislation defines the system of lower courts. The nation is divided into three judicial districts: the first encompasses the provinces of Panamá, Colón, and Darién; the second, Veraguas, Los Santos, Herrera, and Coclé; the third, Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí (see fig. 1). Directly under the Supreme Court are four superior tribunals, two for the first judicial district and one each for the second and third districts. Within each province there are two circuit courts, one for civil and one for criminal cases. The lowest regular courts are the municipal courts located in each of the nation's sixty-five municipal subdivisions. In the tribunals, the judges are nominated by the Supreme Court, while lower judges are appointed by the courts immediately above them.
The Constitution also creates a Public Ministry, headed by the attorney general, who is assisted by the solicitor general, the district and municipal attorneys, and other officials designated by law. The attorney general and the solicitor general are appointed in the same way as Supreme Court justices, but serve for no fixed term. Lower-ranking officials are appointed by those immediately above them. The functions of the Public Ministry include supervising the conduct of public officials, serving as legal advisers to other government officials, prosecuting violations of the Constitution and other laws, and arraigning before the Supreme Court officials over whom the Court "has jurisdiction." This provision pointedly excludes members of the FDP.
Several constitutional provisions are designed to protect the independence of the judiciary. These include articles that declare that "magistrates and judges are independent in the exercise of their functions and are subject only to the Constitution and the law;" that "positions in the Judicial Organ are incompatible with any participation in politics other than voting;" that judges cannot be detained or arrested except with a "written order by the judicial authority competent to judge them;" that the Supreme Court and the attorney general control the preparation of the budget for the judicial organ; and that judges "cannot be removed, suspended, or transferred from the exercise of their functions except in cases and according to the procedures prescribed by law."
The major defect in the judicial system lies in the manner in which appointments are made to the judiciary. Appointments of judges and of the attorney general are subject to the approval of the Legislative Assembly, but that body has functioned as a rubber stamp for candidates selected by the executive. Lower-level appointments, made by superiors within the judicial organ, are not subject to assembly approval. In addition, the first two Supreme Court justices appointed after the 1984 elections were both former attorneys general, closely associated with the government and even involved in some of its most controversial actions, such as the investigation of the murder of opposition leader Spadafora. As a result, the opposition has denounced regularly the judicial system for being a political organ controlled by the FDP and the PRD. Numerous external observers, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States Department of State, and various human rights organizations, also have criticized the lack of independence of the Panamanian judiciary and of the Public Ministry (see Administration of Justice , ch. 5).
Data as of December 1987
Panama Table of Contents