Nullifying the Constitution, One Article at a Time

Wipe your feet before entering
Wipe your feet before entering
Wipe your feet before entering

Here’s one that’s flying under the radar: in a resolution dated February 13th, the government-controlled Supreme Tribunal gave itself the authority to decide which specific judge will hear which specific “sensitive” case, in 18 out of 23 states in the country, rather than using the long-established method of drawing lots to determine which judge hears a given case.

This is directly contravenes the mandate in article 49, section 3 of the 1999 constitution – you know the one I’m talking about, right? The one chavistas drafted, Chávez campaigned for and for years called the best in the world. That one.

Article 49, section 3 contains a longstanding constitutional principle guaranteeing the right to be tried by “natural judges” – a term of art that precludes judges arbitrarily selected to hear specific cases.

In current circumstances, with hundreds of political detainees awaiting trial on basically political charges, the potential for abuse here is only too obvious. Already in the aftermath of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni’s arbitrary detention, due process guarantees were a bit of a husk in Venezuela, but with this they’re tossed out the window altogether.

This stepwise nullification of the 1999 constitution has been going on for so long, it barely even registeres as a blip. Arbitrary decisions that overturn key constitutional guarantees are “normal” in Venezuela.

As early as March 14th, 2000 – not even 3 months after the 1999 constitution was approved by referendum – the court was handing down bizarre rulings that reversed the ordinary meaning of words – in that case, interpreting Article 186’s guarantee of “proportional representation” in the National Assembly to mean that representation in the National Assembly didn’t have to be proportional. (Surprise surprise, in today’s National Assembly chavistas hold 60% of the seats, even though they only got 48.2% of the votes.)

So, in Venezuela, this kind of thing is “normal”. We’re talking about a Supreme Tribunal where judges have been heard to chant pro-government slogans on their feet at their start-of-session ceremony…what did you expect? I think we’re going to run out of room for stripes; we’re going to need a bigger tiger.

But it should. Because democracy means that the power to elect the people who make the laws. Where laws – and the constitution itself – are routinely interpreted to mean the diametrical opposite of what they say, the ability to elect the people who make them becomes meaningless.