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Concerns Arise over New Constitutional Court Judges in Ecuador

President Rafael Correa will appoint new judges to the Constitutional Court. (Presidencia de Ecuador)

October 10, 2012

Ecuador’s government will select new judges to serve on the country’s Constitutional Court by October 14. Appointed by President Rafael Correa, a selection committee works to review a pool of 19 candidates, from which to pick nine judges and nine alternates. The Court will be tasked with final oversight and approval of laws, including reforms the Correa administration passed in May 2011 to give the president more authority to regulate the media. The reform also allowed the executive to appoint a special committee to monitor and regulate the industry. The Constitutional Court selection process raises questions about Correa’s involvement in both the judiciary and media sector. 

Correa’s government implemented a complex process, accepting applications from 24 judicial candidates and subjected them to in-depth written and oral examinations. The committee tested candidates’ spelling skills and asked them to define their interpretation of the right to employment and housing, as defined by the 2008 Constitution. However, not a single one of the candidates received a perfect score of 35 points on the written portion of the exam. Current judges seeking reelection also fared poorly; Patricio Pazmiño, head of the Constitutional Court, received 22 out of 35 while Édgar Zárate, the current vice-chairman of the Court, received 17.

While the tests form part of the evaluation process, decisions about appointments ultimately rest with Correa’s selection committee. The process is “highly politicized,” said Economist Intelligence Unit analyst William Lee to AS/COA Online. He added that “this is quite a sensitive area in Ecuador. One of the main drivers behind the protests against [former president] Lucio Gutierrez's administration, which subsequently collapsed, was that he stacked the courts with his own supporters.” Former Ecuadoran legislator Enrique Herrería characterized the process as a “designation.” Herrería also called the selection committee “an appendage of the president of the republic.”

Observers worry Correa will likely appoint judges who will help him consolidate his control of the country’s government. The selection committee responsible for picking the new judges is staffed with former advisors to Correa’s government such as Nestor Arbito Chica, a lawyer who served as an advisor to the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy and reportedly “does not have a specialization in constitutional law.” Other members of the selection committee include Pamela Martinez, who served as a direct advisor to Correa from 2009 until January, 2012, and Francisco Vergara, a former advisor to the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

The membership of the Constitutional Court could have long-term implications. The Constitutional Court has final authority to interpret the constitutionality of Ecuadoran laws, and could affect the ongoing legal review of Correa’s disputes with members of the media as well as indigenous and environmental groups. For instance, on September 26, the Electoral Litigation Court fined the news magazine Vistazo $80,000 in response to a 2011 editorial that urged voters to reject parts of a Correa’s May 7 referendum ballot, an initiative which expanded the powers delegated to the executive branch. Hernán Pérez Loose, an Ecuadoran political analyst, wrote “the recent fine of the magazine Vistazo…is a gross violation of Ecuadoran law…according to our constitution.”

Observers and political opponents expressed concern that Ecuador’s judge selection process fits into a broader pattern of steps Correa has taken over the past six years in office expanding his authority and undermining government critics in the media. In addition, the Constitutional Court will be tasked with final reviews of newly implemented laws. Ecuador’s legislation now prohibits media groups from “either directly or indirectly promoting any given candidate, proposal, options, electoral preferences or political thesis, through articles, specials or any other form of message.” The May referendum also gave the government the authority to create a regulatory council to oversee the media sector and regulate television, print, and radio content and set penalties for news groups that it accuses of violating the standards set by the new communications law.

In other Pacific-country news:

  • Canada and Mexico formally joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free-trade area now made up of 11 countries in the Americas and Asia-Pacific regions. The two countries originally received the invitation to join talks at the G-20 Summit in June. The bloc encompasses 658 million people with a combines GDP of $20.5 trillion.
  • Colombia’s peace process moved forward this week as the country’s government suspended arrest warrants for ten FARC guerrilla leaders who will act as spokespeople for the group during the negotiations, taking place in Norway the week of October 15.
  • Colombia’s Congress is debating a bill to regulate euthanasia in cases of terminal illness. If approved, the bill would enforce a 1997 Constitutional Court ruling that stipulated that a right to dignified life includes the right to die respectably.