DESCRIPTION OF THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM OF PANAMA
The Civil Law system is applied by the Judicial system, which judges are not bound by judicial precedent in their decisions. Judges rely in the Constitution, followed by Codes, laws and regulations as direct source of law. Only 3 identical decisions by the full Supreme Court have a rank of mere “probable doctrine”. In the absence of express legal provisions applicable to a subject matter, general principles of law as stated in scholarly publications (and in commerce law, local customs if practiced by 5 or more merchants who testify to that fact) serve as indirect source of law.
The Constitution and procedure laws have provisions, from which Panamanian jurists have determined to be the main concepts or principles which guide the legal system. A chapter of the Constitution is devoted to individual freedoms, which provide safeguards against arbitrary detention or punishment. Article 20 of the Constitution provides that no discrimination shall exist by reason of birth, race, sex or religion and that foreigners and national are equal before the law. This equality is also applicable to the acts and appearances of parties before the judicial entities. Another constitutional guarantee provides that nobody shall be judged other than by a competent authority for violations of the previously enacted law. This rule of law principle is also extended to imposition of fines or any other decisions that any public official takes with regards to citizens or their properties. Constitutional provisions which have been criticized abroad are the powers granted to high-ranking officials to order a detention without due process for up to 24 hours and the imprisonment penalties for libel that results in "offenses to the honor". Another chapter of the Constitution provides principles for the actions of the Judiciary power. The constitutional principle of judicial independence provides that Judges are independent in their acts and are subject to nothing more than the Constitution and the laws (Article 207, Constitution)
The Judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Court of Justice, formed by 9 Justices. They hear jointly constitutionality cases, while groups of 3 Justices each form 4 Sections: Civil, Criminal, Contentious-Administrative (judicial review of administrative cases, appeal of labor courts) and General Affairs each with their specialized caseload. Constitutionality cases are decided by the totality of all Justices. Civil Superior Justice Tribunals act as appellate courts, while Civil Circuit and Municipal judges try cases above and below US$1,000, respectively. Courts of special jurisdictions are the Family courts which try family law cases and the single Admiralty court which deals with admiralty cases arising from incidents in ships sailing the Panama Canal and Panamanian waters, or on board ships with Panamanian flag wherever they are located.
In the Criminal jurisdiction, Criminal Circuit and Municipal judges try cases with imprisonment terms above and below 2 years, respectively. Their decisions are appealed before Criminal Superior Justice Tribunals and may be subject to extraordinary review by the Criminal Section of the Supreme Court.
A Public Defender’s Office is of recent creation and is meant to provide counsel to defendants indicted.
A special labor jurisdiction has Superior Justice Tribunals as appellate courts, and Sectional judges which hear cases. Extraordinary review of their decision is exercised by the Contentious-Administrative Section of the Supreme Court, in the absence of the Labor Section provided under the Labor Code.
The Public Ministry is formed by the Attorney (“Procurador”) General of the Nation and the Solicitor (also called “Procurador”) General of the Administration. The Attorney General works along with lower district attorneys (“Fiscales de Distrito”), circuit attorneys (“Fiscales de Circuit”) and municipal attorneys (“Personeros”) which prosecute criminal cases before criminal courts. The Technical Judicial Police is the investigative department of the Public Ministry. Scholars debate to which of the branches the Public Ministry belongs, since it is not subordinate to any of the heads of the branches.
On a local level, municipalities have their equivalent of the three branches of power. Each municipality is led by a mayor, who enforces ordinances enacted by a Municipal Council of community representatives (“Representantes de Corregimientos”) – all of which are elected for 5-year terms in general elections. The mayor appoints justices of the peace (“Corregidores”) who assist in enforcing ordinances in each Corregimiento. Corregidores deal with most minor offenses, as they have presence in each of the 500-plus Corregimiento communities. Their decisions are subject to appeal before the mayor of the relevant municipality and to judicial review by the Contentious-Administrative Section of the Supreme Court.
Specialized Judicial Bodies
The Electoral Tribunal is a court separate from the other branches of government. Its 3 magistrates are is appointed by the Assembly for 10-year terms not concurrent with the presidential term or with each other’s term. The Tribunal keeps birth and marriage records, serves as electoral office and also tries cases for violation of electoral laws. The Electoral Attorney (“Fiscal”) takes cases to them for trial.
The People’s Defender or Ombudsman investigates complaints from citizens about abuses by government officials and can call for their sanction or removal. The Ombudsman is appointed by the Assembly for a 5-yeaterm not concurrent with the presidential term.
A Special District Attorney (“Fiscal Especial”) was created in 1990 to prosecute crimes against the Nation. It prosecuted several cases of human rights violations by the military of the pre-1990 governments. However, cases were tried before traditional criminal courts, where acts of alleged coertion against juries preceded the acquittals of
Some non-governmental organizations have acted as human rights groups to gather complaints of violations or abuses by the Panamanian and/or U.S. military between 1968 and 1990. The 20-year statute of limitations for further prosecution of pre-1980 violations and the uncovering of human remains at a former Panamanian military airbase triggered the appointment by the President of a ad-hoc truth commission in 2001. The commission has the duty of gathering information about complaints of human rights violations by the Panamanian military and its mandate has a specific exclusion from exercising judicial duties. Despite budgetary constraints, the commission has compiled a list of more than a hundred disappearances allegedly related to the Panamanian military.