Panamanian justice: a garden variety morning in court

A man greets you at the front desk of the courthouse in Penonome, but on this occasion women ran the show, as they increasingly do in this country’s district courts. Do we want to talk indigenous roots here? In the Embera culture justice and the maintenance of order in the village are considered women’s work, so that if you get sentenced to the disgrace of being put in the cepo, it’s a female elder who orders it. And the name of this provincial seat? It is said to derive from “Aquí penó Nomé” — Nomé was punished here — a reference to the execution of a leader of the indigenous resistance to the Spanish Conquest. Courthouse photo by the Organo Judicial.

My morning in court

by Eric Jackson

In front of the judge at eight in the morning. What a beastly hour! Maybe set according to the principle of getting unpleasant things out of the way first thing.

For this writer, deadline stuff to get the Friday playlist finished and posted, get washed and dressed, and be out the door and through the rustic streets of El Bajito to the bus stop. Deadline me, but some fretting about whether they’d bar me from court for being dressed like a bum. Getting as presentable as I could, the concern shifted to whether I would get there on time.

But first, a friendly greeting to remind me of my earlier concern. One of my shared canines followed me to the bus stop, playing with a friend along the way. I had to issue her a stern warning. ‘Don’t you DARE jump on me with those muddy paws!’ She desisted, as did her friend, a little guy who looks like a tiny German shepherd and lives with the Evangelical hotel worker who lives along the way. Both dogs did poke me with wet noses and got the muzzle and ears scritch responses.

A few minutes later I got on a San Juan de Dios to Anton bus, getting of at the entrada to hop on an Anton to Penonome bus, and then hailing a cab at the edge of downtown to take me out to the judicial complex in Miraflores de Penonome. Signed in with 10 minutes to spare was told to sit.

I watched. I saw some demographics and occupational roles which, although not uniformly applicable throughout the system, gave much instruction about what all this fuss about gender parity in the Electoral Code is about.

Everyone sweeping or mopping was female. All of the cops were male. The guys who checked my name against the schedule and wrote me down on their lists were men. As were those who told me to sit, and then that it was time to go upstairs.

In the courtroom, the judge, her clerk, the prosecutor and the public defender were all women. That’s increasingly how the Panamanian courts, and the legal profession as it works, look. For a number of years the law schools – and really, just about all faculty departments from which professionals emerge – graduate a lot more women than men.

The COVID epidemic has disrupted our 2020 census and the publication of whatever partial results, leaving me with a demographic question. Is Panama still one of those relatively rare male-majority countries? The women here have long been on the whole better educated but lesser paid than the men. For a long time a very common solution was for women to marry foreigners and leave Panama. With the closure of US bases one great source of that was reduced. But if marrying an American soldier is less of a possibility, for the best of our female students a scholarship to study abroad became a way to move elsewhere, marry someone there and never come back. In the early 2000s the changes had reduced but not eliminated the male majority and drained away many of our brightest brains.

You know how lawyers carry on – or maybe you don’t. The insults and intellectual scuffling were still there, but subdued not only because this was a hearing to ratify a pre-arranged deal. The glance, the gesture, the raised eyebrow these were the “sounds” of legal battle being done on this morning.

Being the one man in the room, I was called upon to state my name, so that the record might reflect my presence. No speeches. Two guys came in by video from the jailhouse, to say who they were, and acknowledge that they accepted a plea bargain that would send them to prison for years on an aggravated robbery charge.

A third defendant was to virtually appear, but in her case the video connection from the women’s lockup was down so that part of the hearing was put off until November 1. Another defendant remains at large.

(I have limited my published statements about this case, to avoid prejudicial pretrial publicity. I won’t give a fugitive such deference.)

I’m increasingly deaf, and the masks get in the way of the lip-reading by which I had been faking it for so long. This particular courtroom made it worse, as I was seated in front of an air conditioning unit that made plenty of white noise. And the video screen? A small one, at the judge’s side. She moved it around a bit so that I could also see, but this new courthouse really does need some large screens on the walls behind the judges and some better speakers if there is to be fuller public observation of and participation in the various proceedings.

One thing I did hear was reference to myself as the “estadounidiense,” although I was born in Colon, carry a cedula that reflects this and have lived in Panama for most of my life. In a lot of courtrooms around the world thugs are not allowed to be humored by any references to the ethnicity of their victims. But then, once upon a time when Mayín Correa was mayor of Panama City one of the thugs she appointed as corregidora accepted an argument by this guy who would very intentionally set off his car alarm under my bedroom window in the wee hours of the morning that “If he doesn’t like it he can move to some other country.”

The morning’s business was done mostly efficiently, mostly cordially, mostly in the interests of justice – if prisons ever do serve that purpose well. I did not leave the courthouse in a joyous mood.

Life goes on. Mine and those of the incarcerated.

And what about this stuff about how Panamanian justice is broken? Well, it is. But not all of its parts. At the lower levels the attorneys and judges are far more likely to be excellent, and decisions are far less likely to be sold. Not that I or anyone else in El Bajito have that sort of money anyway.

I can see things to improve, but nothing left me with a bad impression of any of the people working at the courthouse this morning.


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