The deal is… (2): high court appointments

Olmedo Arrocha Sánchez, a veteran Panameñista activist and apparatchik, has replaced Oydén Ortega, who came to the high court as a former PRD legislator and dictatorship political operative, on the Supreme Court’s civil bench. Photo by the National Assembly.

Magistrates approved: new phase of relations between
an unpopular president and a detested legislature

by Eric Jackson

The general rule is that magistrates of Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice serve 10-year terms and only rarely get reappointed.  But when Olmedo Arrocha and Abel Zamorano were sworn in on March 16, it was for a bit shy of a nine-year term for Arrocha and only until the end of this year for Zamorano.

For Zamorano it was just an upgrade of title and perhaps some perks to go with that. He was the suplente (alternate) for the sticky fingered Alejandro Moncada Luna when that partisan operative / magistrate / functionary from Noriega times was impeached and sent to prison for amassing a fortune while in public office, the legitimate provenance of which he could not explain. So Zamorano stepped in as an acting magistrate, with all the duties but with the possibility of a tenure cut short if the president had decided to appoint a replacement for Moncada Luna, along with a replacement suplente. But Zamorano by all appearances is a career judge who has served ably and honorably on a scandal-plagued and disreputable court, so it was convenient to leave him where he was and considerate to formally give him the title of a job he had been performing for years on the court’s administrative bench and plenum.

Arrocha, who just has a licenciatura in law from the University of Panama, has flitted back and forth among the general private practice of law, teaching contracts law at several schools, serving on a drugs commission that has no victory to show in any “War on Drugs,” and as acting head of the Ministry of Economy and Finance’s investment program for the Varela administration. Critics say the appointment was all about his political credentials and that his legal qualifications may meet the constitutional minimums but are unimpressive. In any case, this is an appointment to replace a magistrate whose term ended with 2017 but whose attempts at replacement had been blocked by the legislature until now. So it will be a bit less than a nine-year term for Arrocha.

In the works is another high court nomination, that of Luis Fernando Tapia, to replace Jerónimo Mejía on the penal bench. Like Ortega, Mejía was ordinarily supposed to leave office on December 31, 2017. Thus Tapia’s term, if his nomination is ratified, would also be for a bit less than nine years. Tapia has an 18-year career as court reporter, court clerk and assistant judge in the criminal court system. His qualifications to serve on the high court are denigrated by some critics. There will be hearings about that in the legislature.

The trend in the legislature was at the outset of the Varela administration a cobbled-together governability pact, then a shift to a PRD and Cambio Democratico alliance to block Varela programs and appointments. Now the Torrijistas and Martinelistas are fighting an election campaign against each other and everyone else, so this National Assembly is in a third phase.

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