Change and continuity on the high court

judicial organ
José Ayú Prado (left) remains the president of the Supreme Court. Photo by the Supreme Court.

New magistrates, same leadership

by Eric Jackson

Early on January 4 at the Palacio de las Garzas, President Varela swore in Ángela Russo and Cecilio Cedalice as Supreme Court magistrates and gave a brief speech about how the country needs judges who put loyalty to the nation ahead of private interests. After year of turmoil and unprecedented events, the nine-member court is getting some new faces at least. Not only Cedalise and Russo, but it’s expected that Varela will soon appoint their suplentes (alternates) who will end up acting as magistrates in many cases.

That afternoon at the Supreme Court the magistrates got together to select the presiding magistrate for the next two years. By a 5-4 vote, including those of Russo and Cedalice, they re-elected José Ayú Prado to lead the court. It was a surprising, and to many annoying, choice.

Ayú Prado started his public sector career as one of the dictatorship’s prosecutors, was one of Ricardo Martinelli’s attorneys general and was raised to that position by Martinelli. Five of the nine magistrates — one an acting magistrate — are still Martinelli appointees but the ex-president commands even less loyalty from the judges he appointed than from his party’s rebellious legislative caucus. (Aren’t judges supposed to be above all that, non-responsive to orders and independent of party loyalties? That is the stated norm, which was crassly violated by Martinelli, who used his tourism minister, Salomón Shamah, to relay orders to the courts. But the presiding magistrate of those times, Alejandro Moncada Luna, is now an inmate at El Renacer Penitentiary near Gamboa.) The Supreme Court has long had an odious reputation and it’s unclear if last year’s removal of one magistrate and forced resignation of another on charges of amassing wealth that they could not explain as coming from a legitimate source while holding public office meant the end of that institution’s culture of bribery. In any case, two of Martinelli’s five appointees — Harry Díaz and Abel Zamorano, the latter Moncada Luna’s suplente and now acting magistrate — voted against Ayú Prado.

There are eight criminal complaints about Ayú Prado pending before the National Assembly’s Credentials Committee. In one of them he is accused of pressuring a witness against Ricardo Martinelli in the Financial Pacific affair to change her testimony when he was attorney general.

Most of the country’s judicial reform activists were taken by surprise when Varela’s two appointees voted to re-elect Ayú Prado. Speaking independently of anyone else but in her judicially restrained way, former high court magistrate and current member of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission Esmeralda de Troitiño summed up the mood when she told La Prensa that the choice was “hardly fortunate.”


Cedalice takes the oath. Photo by the Presidencia.


Russo signs the register. Photo by the Presidencia.


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