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Judges are above the law, Sala IV seems to decide

by Garland M Baker on March 30, 2009

The judge won. He said his decisions were not open to question. The Sala IV (Supreme Court) of Costa Rica agreed. A judge can decide anything they deem appropriate in a given case, and it is not up for discussion. The Office of Judicial Inspections have been ordered not to question the judges’ final word either — even in cases where there may be obvious bribery, curruption or fraud.

The Sala IV has said that a judge’s resolution could be overturned by a superior court but could not be voided by anyone other than him or herself. Their decision would reject any oversight of any other judicial considerations.

In one instance, the Sala IV ordered the Court’s Judicial Inspection Department to reinstate a judge — who had been suspended for making a suspicious decision — and pay him all his wages back because the office had suspended him wrongly. The inspectors had questioned one of his resolutions and suspended the judge because they felt there was some monkey business going on concerning a civil collection case.

Costa Rican law originated from Roman law, unlike the U.S. legal system, which originated from Anglo law. Roman law is based on rules, and Anglican law is based on jurisprudence. In Costa Rica, rules are written as laws and their interpretations are left up to the judges. Their rendition is their business, no one else’s, according to the Costa Rican Supreme Court.

Here is the story:
In a case where an asset was given as a guarantee, the creditor asked — as is his right under Costa Rican law — that a court-appointed trustee be in charge of the asset in question until a collection case was settled. A judge, overlooking the creditor’s right, said no to the request.

The creditor appealed the judge’s decision to a higher court. Superior courts are usually made up of three judges in Costa Rica, and they are referred to as tribunal courts. The appeal process took more than a year to resolve, but the creditor won. The higher court ordered the lower court – in very stern language – to grant the court-appointed trustee the asset in order to protect the creditor.

Here is where things get interesting. The creditor contacted the trustee, and they went to the court on a Friday to get the pickup order for the asset. They got the run around from the court clerks, but the clerks finally prepared the order for the judge to sign. As it turned out, the same judge who said no the first time and whose decision was overturned by the superior court was in charge that day.

However, at the time they needed the judge’s signature, they were told that the judge had some emergency come up and had to leave the court building early that day. None of his assistants told the creditor or the trustee that in reality, the judge had stayed there all day and did not leave the building until the court was about to close. The creditor and the trustee had waited all day for the order to be completed. The only thing they were told at the end was that they had to come back Monday to get the document signed.

Was the judge there on Monday? No. It just so happens that he went on vacation and a substitute judge was in his place. After a bit of pushing, they finally convinced one of the assistants to let them speak with the replacement judge. The creditor and the trustee explained the whole case to the man so he would sign the pickup order. After the judge listened to the story with little interest, they were told to wait outside.

Lo and behold, the debtors in the case were also sitting in the chairs outside the judge’s office waiting to see what would take place.

Any expats who have lived a reasonable time in Costa Rica can probably guess what happened. The replacement judge said he would not sign the order as it was written. He called in the assistant — the same one who prepared the order on Friday — and told her to redo the order to say exactly the opposite of what the creditor and the trustee needed.

The creditor, with nowhere else to go, filed a complaint with the court’s Judicial Inspection Office. They took the case immediately and went to the lower court in question to investigate. The original analysis stated that the investigators considered the judge’s decision as wrong by dismissing the higher court’s order. After further probing, they suspended the substitute judge. This judge immediately filed an amparo – a special injunction for relief and stay – with the Sala IV claiming that a judge’s decision cannot be questioned in Costa Rica.

The results are in. The creditor, trustee and the Judicial Inspections Office lost the case. The judge won. The Sala IV very clearly agreed with him. Decisions by judges — no matter how unreasonable, wrong, or suspicious — cannot be scrutinized by anyone, including the Judicial Inspections Office, who was also strongly reprimanded by the Sala IV for over-stepping their bounds.

The Sala IV, in its decree, told the inspectors’ office that they can only investigate a judge regarding their administrative protocol — such as showing up for work on time, remaining a certain amount of hours in their offices and completing their duties as expected by court — but never on the grounds of illegally obstructing justice or meddling with correct law procedures.

Recently, three lawyers who found out about this case were flabbergasted over the Sala IV’s ruling. They feel it makes it that much easier for judges in this country to be swayed in their judgment, especially when they cannot be held liable for corrupt, illegal or suspicious decisions.

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