The Miami Herald
May 1, 2000

 Venezuela's path to justice: Hundreds of judges ousted


 CARACAS -- The judiciary is so notoriously corrupt in Venezuela that polls show
 a majority of citizens would prefer simply to scrap the court system and build a
 new one from scratch.

 President Hugo Chavez, a fiery populist, has chosen a less drastic route -- but
 one that is sending a dramatic message.

 In a seven-month campaign to excise the ``cancer of corruption'' from the
 judiciary, the Chavez government has suspended or fired 400 of the nation's 1,394
 judges. Scores -- and perhaps hundreds -- more judges may yet get the ax.

 The judicial housecleaning has brought a positive response from the public,
 making it one of the most popular measures taken by Chavez, a former army
 coup leader who pledges a ``peaceful revolution'' for his oil-producing nation.

 But experts say authorities still have a long way to go. While removing judges in
 large numbers, the government has not yet shown a willingness to entrust the
 judicial branch with enough money and autonomy to make it truly independent.

 Even the respected veteran law professor helping to lead the purge of judges
 admits that his efforts may not ultimately pay off.

 ``What we are doing can disappear like grains of sand falling through my hand,''
 said Rene Molina Galicia, the inspector general of tribunals.

 Molina said Venezuela desperately needs to expand its number of courtrooms,
 offer equal access to justice for the poor, create an effective system of public
 defenders, double the pay of judges to about $6,000 a month, and close
 fly-by-night law schools that have created a glut of lawyers.

 A crisis of law and order is becoming ever more apparent. Angry citizens have
 taken to lynching alleged murderers, rapists and car thieves on nearly a weekly
 basis somewhere in the country. Police tally an average of 21 murders a day,
 comparable to casualties in a nation at war. A vehicle is stolen in Venezuela
 every 10 minutes. Human rights groups say Venezuelan prisons are perhaps the
 most hellish in the hemisphere, a problem that long predates the Chavez

 The Venezuelan courts deteriorated rapidly with the transition from military
 dictatorship to democratic rule in the late 1950s.

 ``Neither the government nor Congress was interested in being controlled by the
 courts,'' said Pedro Nikken, a respected former U.N. legal consultant. ``It got to
 the point where the central government spent more on [promotional] advertising
 than it did on the judiciary. . . . It was absolutely scandalous.''


 Party bosses nominated judges based on political loyalties and family ties,
 ignoring rampant charges of corruption and nepotism.

 ``The political parties handed out all the appointments. . . . Each judge owes his
 job to political interests,'' said Gerardo Blyde, a prominent lawyer. ``If a son of a
 politician commits a crime, it is very difficult to punish him.''

 By the 1990s, the courts had become a calamitous study in corruption. A
 best-selling 1995 book was titled How Much to Buy a Judge? Big law firms set up
 informal networks, known as ``tribes,'' of lawyers, judges and court employees to
 ensure that their clients could purchase favorable rulings.

 For the 80 percent of Venezuela's 24 million people living in poverty, justice was
 usually implacable.

 ``This is the reason there is so much social rage right now,'' said Molina, the
 inspector general. ``It is because the courts were at the service of those who
 turned `justice' into a profitable business.''

 Chavez applauded last August when an all-powerful assembly writing a new
 national charter created a special emergency commission with powers to
 suspend and fire judges. The commission began its overhaul by defying a public
 clamor for a quick, relentless purge.

 It agreed to suspend only judges with seven or more formal complaints of
 corruption or incompetence against them. Some judges had far more complaints.
 One had 65, and no disciplinary action had been taken.


 Molina said a practical reason impeded reducing the number of complaints
 required for suspension: ``We would have had to boot out nearly 100 percent of
 the judiciary.''

 Of the first 119 judges purged in October, 20 had criminal investigations pending
 against them, Molina said. An additional 280 or so judges have been suspended
 since then, accused of issuing rulings too slowly, living far beyond their means or
 maintaining links to crime figures.

 Many of those affected by suspensions have complained bitterly, saying the
 procedures deny them an immediate hearing.

 ``I learned about my suspension the day it was published in the papers,'' said
 Judge Saul Ron, an appellate magistrate in the coastal state of Vargas that is
 home to the country's major port. ``This goes against all elements of due

 Newspapers reported that Ron and four other judges in Vargas were suspended
 for alleged links to narcotics traffickers.

 The ongoing purge -- about 259 judges are still under review -- has raised natural
 suspicions that members of the Chavez government may simply be seeking to
 install judges favorable to them.


 ``The impression that one has from afar is that they are removing some judges to
 put in others and create new `tribes' under the control of new political bosses,''
 said Saul Cabrera of the Consultores 21 polling firm.

 However, the Judicial Restructuring Commission has already picked a 15-member
 board of legal experts to begin selecting replacement judges based on legal
 training, moral rectitude and past civic behavior.

 ``We will examine their knowledge of the law, their personal assets and their
 private lives,'' Molina said. ``We want judges to work their shifts and not write
 rubber checks.''

 ``I think things will improve,'' said Blyde, who was picked to serve on the
 evaluation board.

 The first newly selected judges will begin work in late June or early July.

 More resources may also be in store for the judiciary. The new constitution
 approved in December requires that 2 percent of the national budget go to the
 judicial branch, up from the average 0.86 percent spent on the court system in the
 last decade.