Venezuela has no dual organization of national and state courts. Since 1945, all courts have been part of the federal system, even though at one point a parallel organization of state courts existed. Regardless of their form of organization, the courts have never exercised as much influence as the executive or even the legislative branch in Venezuela.
As is the case with the legislature, the judicial branch in Venezuela does not share equal status with the executive. Although the law provides for the process of judicial review and for coequal status among the three branches of government, the reality is quite different. The Venezuelan brand of federalism does not provide for state courts. The law is perceived as the same, unitary, throughout the national territory. Thus, all courts and virtually all legal officers, from those who arrest to those who prosecute, are federal (i.e., central government) officials.
Broader implications stem from the fact that the Venezuelan legal system is essentially a code law system, and thus the legal system is relatively rigid and leaves little room for judicial discretion. In a system of code law, the jurist is seen as a confirmer of the written code rather than the finder or maker of the law, as is the case in common law systems.
The highest body in the judicial system is the fifteen-member Supreme Court of Justice, which is divided into three chambers that handle respectively, politico-administrative, civil, and penal matters. Its members are elected by joint session of the Congress for nine-year terms. One-third of the membership is renewed every three years. Each justice is restricted to a single term of nine years; this short tenure effectively limits how much a Supreme Court justice can accomplish.
Below the Supreme Court are seventeen judicial districts, each district having its own superior court. Lower courts within a judicial district include courts of instruction, district courts, municipal courts, and courts of first instance. The superior courts are composed of either one or three judges, a bailiff, and a secretary. They serve as appellate courts for matters originating in courts of first instance in the areas of civil and criminal law. Some deal exclusively with civil matters, others with criminal matters, and others with all categories of appeals. The courts of first instance are composed of one judge, a bailiff, and a secretary. They have both appellate and original jurisdiction and are divided into civil, mercantile, penal, finance, transit, labor, and juvenile courts. District courts are composed of one judge, one bailiff, and a secretary; they also operate nationwide. They have original jurisdiction in small bankruptcy and boundary suits, and appellate jurisdiction over all cases from the municipal courts. Municipal courts, consisting of a judge, a bailiff, and a secretary, hear small claims cases and also try those accused of minor crimes and misdemeanors. They also perform marriages. Although they do not constitute courts as such, instruction judges issue indictments, oversee investigations to determine whether a case merits the attention of the courts and, if so, issue an arrest warrant. Thus, these judges perform a crucial task in the initial stages of all cases that come before the courts.
In addition to the courts of ordinary jurisdiction, several courts of special jurisdiction operate under the Ministry of Justice. Military tribunals, fiscal tribunals, and juvenile courts all fall into this category. Although they operate independently of the ordinary courts, the Supreme Court also acts as the highest court of appeal for the special courts. Juvenile courts throughout the country try those under eighteen years of age.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Venezuelan judicial system is its carryover of medieval Castilian traditions, such as the fuero militar (military privilege). Under this centuries-old tradition, members of the military cannot be tried by criminal or civilian courts, although the military has at times intruded into the civilian judicial system. For example, the Armed Forces of Cooperation (Fuerzas Armadas de Cooperación--FAC)--also known as the National Guard-- was charged with the function of protecting all national territory and highways. Under this broad mandate, it could and did prosecute contraband cases and in effect became involved in the criminal prosecution of many suspected civilian offenders. This power was likely to increase as drug contraband became a greater problem in Venezuela, especially along its borders with Colombia.
Generally speaking, the system for selecting judges tended to limit their independence. The Congress chooses the members of the Supreme Court, and the minister of justice names judges to the lower civilian courts. Neither category of judge enjoyed life tenure. Judges' salaries were submitted to Congress as line items in the Ministry of Justice's annual budget and were therefore not guaranteed. Thus, in a number of ways the judiciary was subordinate to and dependent upon the good will of the executive and the legislative branches. Although Venezuelan jurists occupied a highly regarded position in society, they did not hold nearly as much power as their counterparts in those systems where judicial review and common law are the basic determinants of procedures.
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