Luisa Estela is down, but not out

Meet Gladys Gutiérrez, the new head of both the entire TSJ and its all-powerful Constitutional Chamber

The Venezuelan Supreme Court (TSJ) selects its leadership at the beginning of the judicial year, every January. This time, it took them until May to finally reach a consensus on its leadership.

Even if incumbent TSJ President Luisa Estela Morales proved her undying loyalty over and over again – with extra points for grovelling – it didn’t get her enough support for a new term, and instead fellow Justice Gladys Gutiérrez was selected to replace her.

Don’t expect any major changes in the way the highest court does business, though, as Gutiérrez has been involved with Chavismo right from the very start. Her red, very red resumé speaks for itself. Still, a couple of former TSJ judges think the new president is actually a step forward when compared to Morales’s “absolutely negative” legacy at the helm of the court.

However, former president Morales could still have huge influence over our judiciary, thanks to a ruling which was published the day before she stepped down from her perch: parts of the Ethical Code for Judges (approved in 2009) were suspended for not “adjusting to constitutional parameters.” Four of the seven members of the Constitutional Chamber voted in favor of abolishing it, but Gutiérrez was kept out of the loop.

With this decision, the internal disciplinary process for judges was put on hold, and it will no longer apply to either TSJ magistrates or any other judges named without the formal competitive examination the law establishes (also known as “temporary judges”), which right now constitute 60% of the entire Venezuelan court system.

The catch is that the task of imposing discipline, suspending, or sacking temporary judges won’t be done by the Judicial Commission – which runs the internal government of the Judicial Branch and has Gutiérrez as its head – anymore, but instead by the Tribunals’ General Inspectorate, held by another magistrate, Morales’s ally Juan José Mendoza.

Morales will continue working with Gutiérrez in the Constitutional Chamber, but awkwardness between the two is to be expected. Morales’s last minute ruling hints that a power struggle inside the TSJ may well be under way.

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