DESCRIPTION OF THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM OF VENEZUELA
The Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia) is at the apex of the Venezuelan court system. Its 32 justices (“magistrados”) are elected by the National Assembly for a single 12-year term. Appointments are made following recommendations from the Committee for Judicial Postulations, which consults with organizations dealing with legal issues and the organs of the citizen power.
The Supreme Tribunal is the court of last resort and may meet either in plenary sessions or in groups forming specialized chambers. They are divided into six chambers: constitutional, political-administrative, electoral, civil appeals, criminal appeals, and social (mainly agrarian and labor) issues appeals. The Supreme Tribunal is empowered to invalidate any laws, regulations or other acts of the other governmental branches conflicting with the constitution. It also hears accusations against high public officials, cases involving diplomatic agents, and certain civil actions arising between the State and individuals.
The Lower Courts
The lower court system includes district and municipal courts as well as trial and appeal courts that deal with civil and criminal matters.
The lower court system is somewhat complex. There are courts with special jurisdiction in the following areas:* civil, commercial, criminal, labor, tax, customs, administrative, juvenile, military,* and agrarian. In these jurisdictions (to varying degrees), courts are placed in hierarchical order and are competent on the basis of the amount involved or the importance of the case. For civil and commercial cases, for example, they are divided as follows: parish courts (tribunales de parroquia), district courts (tribunales de distrito), courts of first instance (tribunales de primera instancia),* superior or appeal courts* (tribunales superiores). As a rule, judicial decisions may be appealed to a higher tribunal, but cases may not be heard in more than two courts.
Recent innovations have been the introduction of a justice of the peace (justicia de paz) network and reforms to the criminal procedure scheme. The former seeks to alter the way of bringing about the resolution of conflicts and controversies arising in local communities by means of mediation, if possible, or by determining equity when the parties specifically request it or under certain circumstances established by law. The latter entails the establishment of a new accusatorial system (involving active parties contesting each other) as a substitute for the traditional inquisitorial system (underscoring the role of the judge as the decision-maker throughout the trial). Other new features are tentative steps toward the participation of citizens as lay judges and as jurors.
Other actors in the judicial sector are: the prosecutor general, who provides opinions to the courts on prosecution of criminal cases and brings to the attention of the proper authorities cases of public employee misconduct and violations of the constitutional rights of prisoners or accused persons; the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs, which oversees the prison system and manages the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional or SEBIN), the national intelligence agency of Venezuela, and the organ devoted to the scientific investigation of crimes (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Cientificas Penales y Criminalisticas a.k.a CICPC); and the Executive Office of the Magistracy (Direccion Ejecutiva de la Magistratura a.k.a DEM), which supervises the lower courts as well as the selection and training of judges.
Besides the traditional branches, the 1999 constitution creates two additional branches of the federal government—the citizen and electoral branches. They are embodied by the Republican Moral Council and the National Electoral Council respectively.
The Office of the Prosecutor General, the Office of the Defender of the People, and the Office of the Comptroller General are the three entities comprising the citizen power. They have a crucial role to play vis-à-vis adherence to the rule of law by governmental officials at all levels and, for that purpose, are charged with preventing, investigating, and punishing administrative irregularities.
Office of the Prosecutor General ("Fiscalia General de la Republica") - This office in charge of public prosecutions (“ministerio público”) is an autonomous and hierarchical organization. It belongs neither to the executive branch nor to the judicial branch. The 1999 constitution confers upon it an independent role so that it can better perform its functions as guardian of constitutional rights and liberties, democratic principles, public interests, and the rule of law in general. Its head is the prosecutor general of (“Fiscal General”), who is designated by the National Assembly for a seven-year term, and is charged mainly with prosecuting crimes and representing the peoples’ interests in those cases in which no initiative on the part of a party is required to start or continue such prosecution. The prosecutor general also files any appropriate action to hold liable public officials who have incurred civil, labor, military, criminal, administrative or disciplinary liability in the course of their official duties.
Office of the Defender of the People or General Ombudsman (“Defensoria del Pueblo") - This entity is an independent body created within the sphere of the National Assembly and operates independently, without receiving instructions from any authority. It may take cases against the Government either on its own initiative or at the request of any third party. The services provided to the public are free of charge. The general ombudsman is appointed (and may be removed for cause) by the National Assembly with the vote of two-thirds of its members and the term of office is a single seven-year term. The mission of this officer is the defense and protection of human rights and other liberties and interests protected under the constitution and laws, in the face of deeds, acts or omissions of the administration.
Office of the Comptroller General (Contraloria General de la Republica)
The comptroller general is appointed for a seven-year term by the National Assembly. This officer is in charge of supervising the management and auditing of revenues, expenses, public and national property and transactions of the centralized and decentralized public entities, whatever its forms of organization may be, as well as of other branches of government. Like the other entities of the citizen power, this one enjoys operating, administrative and functional autonomy. It does not co-administer the public sector; it assesses facts, acts, and documents only after the organizations to be audited have finished their accounting exercises. Its main task is the approval or rejection of the revenue and investment accounts of public funds, the opening of investigations into irregularities, and the application of administrative measures and penalties as appropriate. It is upon the comptroller general to call on the prosecutor general to file the legal actions that may apply.
In addition to fulfilling their specific functions, these bodies act collectively as the "Republican Moral Council" to submit reports about their activities to the National Assembly and play an educational role vis-à-vis the defense of civil virtues and democratic principles.