Judicial Power and High Courts in Latin America

By Gloria Orrego Hoyos

Gloria Orrego Hoyos is currently working at the Secretariat Training and Jurisprudence of the Public Defender's Office in Argentina and as a Professor of Law and Legal Research (since 2008) at the Universidad de San Andrés and Universidad Torcuato Di Tella (since 2016) in Buenos Aires. She is a published author on human rights issues (gender and reproductive rights) and has been a guest lecturer in the subject in several countries. Additionally, she has been a consultant for NGOs and commercial databases regarding Latin American law in human and women’s rights. She is a native of Colombia, where she obtained her law degree from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana College of Law in Bogotá, Colombia, and is now living and working in Argentina where she obtained a Master’s in Constitutional Law and Human Rights from the Universidad de Palermo in Buenos Aires. She also has a librarianship degree from the Universidad de Ciencias Empresariales y Sociales in Buenos Aires.

Published September/October 2021

1. The Judicial Power in Latin America

The Latin American legal systems are within the tradition of civil law with elements of Roman law. They have been articulated with liberal rationalist reforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, mediated by the Spanish and Portuguese colonial administration, as well as some reproduction of the North American constitutionalist model.[1]

The way these systems were adopted showed some hybridity between public law (based on the separation of American and French powers) and civil law (adapted from the Napoleonic Code). Historically, the concentration of power and procedures typical of colonial characteristics resulted in a greater presence of the centralist aspects of the French system than the control and balance mechanisms of the North American system. From this system, the presidential form of government was taken, as well as the federal model, which was widely adopted in the nineteenth century, and which is still maintained today by the most extensive and populated countries (such as Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina).

During the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the judiciary in Latin America began to undergo a profound rethinking to accommodate demands for the effective application of the law and the need to carry out judicial reforms aimed at ensuring greater efficiency and autonomy with respect to executive powers.[2] For this reason, after democratic transitions, the Latin American judicial powers were considered more relevant to understand the political functioning of the region.[3]

2. Constitutional Courts and Judicial Review in Latin America

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Latin American countries adopted the republican form of government, excluding Brazil, which was a monarchy until 1889. Having in mind various doctrinal documents and historical events such as the French Revolution and the American model established in 1803, the judicial review was widely disseminated. This is the example that dominates, with other elements, the first Latin American experiences of constitutional control.[4]

Guatemala was the first country that introduced a Constitutional Court into its internal order in its 1965 Constitution,[5] under the name of the Corte Constitucional. Chile created its Constitutional Court in 1971, because of a reform to the then-current Constitution of 1925, but with very limited powers and in line with the French model of constitutional preventive control. Even so, this Court had an intense and agitated activity, and it ceased to exist in 1973 under the Pinochet coup, which established a dictatorship that lasted for many years. Later, the 1980 Constitution, which was prepared under the dictatorship and has lasted until now (with changes), reintroduced the institution of the Constitutional Court, still with limited powers and with a preventative mandate. The Chilean Constitutional Court has had normal activity and is, among those of its kind, the most “discreet” in Latin America.[6]

Colombia is a notable case for its legal and constitutional evolution that laid the foundations of a control model since the nineteenth century and advanced notably in the twentieth century. The 1991 Constitution (in force to date) created the so-called Corte Constitucional as part of the judicial power that includes the Supreme Court of Justice, the Council of State, the Superior Council of the Magistracy, the Attorney General's Office, and other courts and judges, but with total administrative and functional autonomy. Moreover, it has had an intense activity, with creative jurisprudence, which places it in a prominent place among its peers in Latin America.[7]

At the end of the ’70s, Peru introduced, the Tribunal de Garantías Constitucionales in the 1979 Constitution. Later, the current Constitution of 1993 changed its name to the Tribunal Constitucional and expanded its powers. Like its predecessor, it is autonomous and independent from the judiciary. Peru is perhaps the first such model to be introduced in Latin America, closely following the European pattern.[8]

Ecuador, for its part, introduced in 1945 the institution of the Tribunal de Garantías Constitucionales with an advisory nature and dependent on the legislative power. It underwent various reforms until 1996 when, through a constitutional reform, the institution was renamed, it was called the Tribunal Constitucional, and it was granted broad powers. It was also given autonomy from the other state bodies, with binding decisions. This is reiterated in the current 2008 Constitution.

Finally, as part of its 1994 constitutional reform, Bolivia introduced the Tribunal Constitucional which, although considered part of the judiciary, functioned with express jurisdictional powers and full autonomy. It was only instituted in 1999, making it the youngest constitutional court on the continent. The 2009 Bolivian Constitution introduced reforms and changed the name to the Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional.

It is important to note that the other countries that have judicial review do so through the judiciary. In the case of Mexico, by virtue of its constitutional reforms of 1987 and 1994, the Supreme Court of the Nation is a court that only resolves constitutional matters, which, materially and in practice, is a Constitutional Court. In the constitutional reform of 2011 this role is maintained.

In 1989, Costa Rica created the Constitutional Chamber within its Supreme Court with intense jurisprudential activity since then. It is similar to the Cuban experience of 1940 and has influenced other countries that have adopted the same approach, such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, Paraguay, Venezuela, and recently Honduras. Finally, Argentina and Brazil have maintained their constitutional control system since the nineteenth century, taken from the North American model system.

3. Context of the Judicial Power in the Region

Constitutional review is just one of the many functions that Latin American judges serve. Since the 1970s, the prevailing context in the Latin American region was the human rights violations and state terrorism carried out by military dictatorships. This context and the staggered return to democracy in the 1980s allowed multiple civil society organizations to focus their actions on the defense of human rights and on the need to avoid impunity for those responsible for human rights violations. Its demands focused on respect for rights and justice.[9]

At that point, a rethinking of the jurisdictional function spread throughout the region, starting first from the demand for the effective application of the law and, secondly, the recognition of the need to carry out deep judicial reforms aimed at ensuring greater efficiency and autonomy with respect to national executives. Thus, the political–institutional subordination of the judicial power, primarily to the executive, although also to the legislative in the periods of constitutional validity, had a series of consequences that determined the institutional logic of the judiciary: the politicization of conflicts, the maintenance of an outdated normative system (a condition that was maintained well into the twenty-first century), insufficient resources available for training, and the characterization of a bureaucratic and exclusive judicial model.[10]

In Argentina, the return to democracy in 1983 came with strong expectations for the role of the judiciary. The demand for the validity of human rights and the punishment of those responsible for their violations during the previous military dictatorship marked the transition and the government of Raúl Alfonsín.[11] This image hid from the public eye the structural problems that continued to characterize the judiciary, as well as the tendency on the part of the executive power, now democratic, to consider so much judicial autonomy as risky. However, the 1994 constitutional reform offered major institutional changes related to the judiciary, such as the creation of the Consejo de la Magistratura (Council of the Magistracy) for the appointment of the judges of the lower courts to the Supreme Court and the administration of the resources of the judicial power. Public competitions were also established for the appointment of judges.

In the case of Brazil, the political experience of judicial reform is more recent and aims to understand that the largest country in Latin America is in a process of self-evaluation and transformation. Today there is an increase in the social mobilization of interests in judicial proceedings against reformist policies that tried to overcome the economic populism of previous governments.[12] Furthermore, the 1988 constitution had already introduced institutional changes that were decisive in the expansion of the Brazilian judiciary, which, although with a certain dogmatism, has recently spontaneously become activist.

Meanwhile, Chile began its transition to democracy in 1990, when Patricio Aylwin became the first democratically elected president since 1973. Judicial reform, especially the democratization of the judicial structure, was one of the key pieces of the program of the President Aylwin. This process consisted of several reforms to the system for electing judges, especially in the higher-ranking courts. At the head of the judicial power is the Supreme Court of Justice, which is a collegiate court, based in the capital of the Republic. The ministers of the Court are appointed by the President of the Republic, who elects them from a list of five people who, in each case, is proposed by the Supreme Court and has the agreement of the Senate.[13]

The plurinational state of Bolivia, named after the 2009 constitution in recognition of the multi-ethnic nature of the country and the enhanced position of the indigenous peoples of Bolivia, was exposed to profound changes with the constitutional reform which, due to its characteristics of gestation and political approval and fundamentally because of its content, marked a profound change in the legal–constitutional structures that governed the country since the last constitution in 1967.

The judicial branch and the Plurinational Constitutional Court have been regulated by the 2009 Constitution, a composition relatively similar to that provided for in the previous constitution, although with some important innovations linked to the concept of legal pluralism and the methods of election of the authorities of the main courts. It defines that the judicial function is unique, but also provides for the coexistence of the ordinary jurisdiction in charge of the courts provided for in the norm, with the native indigenous peasant jurisdiction in charge of its own authorities, both jurisdictions enjoying the same hierarchy. The latter knows the affairs of the community and in the territorial scope of each town or nation.

In Colombia, after the death of important political leaders and in the midst of a serious institutional crisis, in December 1990 the Constituent Assembly was installed, whose members were elected with representation from both traditional parties and independent sectors.[14] The new constitution of 1991 preserved the Supreme Court and the Council of State; created the Constitutional Court and the Superior Council of the Judiciary; and included principles of the administration of justice (autonomy of judicial officials, free justice, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, among others). The Supreme Court of Justice remains the supreme body of ordinary jurisdiction and has the duty to unify the jurisprudence. The Council of State is the superior authority of the contentious administrative jurisdiction. The Constitutional Court must ensure full compliance and interpretation of the Constitution, while the Superior Council of the Judiciary will fulfill the administrative and disciplinary functions of the judicial branch.

In the ’90s, Costa Rica sought that its judicial power be oriented to achieve a more modern structure in order to be able to comply with the precept of prompt and fulfilled justice. For this reason, the organization of the judicial offices was changed in such a way as to allow greater efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of public services of the administration of justice; in view of this, the Organic Law of the Judicial Power was reformed in 1993, issuing new laws related to the Administration of Justice. As a great novelty, the creation of the Criminal Cassation Court was established and the existing courts of justice in the country were distributed in judicial circuits.[15]

Article 167 of the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution states that “The power to administer justice emanates from the people and is exercised by the organs of the Judicial Function and by the other organs and functions established in the Constitution.” The Supreme Court of Justice of Ecuador, which had functioned as the Court of Last Instance, with the issuance of the Political Constitution of the Republic, functions as the Court of Cassation. This same constitution understands the procedural system to carry out justice. For this reason, the procedural rules will establish the principles of simplification, uniformity, efficiency, immediacy, speed, and procedural economy, and will make the guarantees of due process effective. It is understood that in all cases justice will not be sacrificed for the sole omission of formalities.

In its origins, the judicial power in Mexico did not operate or appear as a real counterweight to the organs destined to the exercise of public power.[16] On the contrary, it was initially conceived with attributions that were limited to the resolution of controversies between individuals, with a marked interference from the executive in its integration and organization. Gradually, in addition to the mission originally entrusted to resolve conflicts that arose between the governed, it has been strengthened through the recognition of powers to its constituent bodies, whose purpose is to control the constitutionality and legality of acts of authority, consolidating its mission as interpreter of the norms of any hierarchy. However, the evolution of the Mexican Federal judicial power—both in its structure and in its main powers—faithfully reflects the advances and setbacks of national political life, from its independence to the contemporary period in which it has dominated in its image the disadvantaged position with respect to the executive and the Parliament.

The National Constitution of the Republic of Paraguay (1992) establishes the Supreme Court of Justice as the last instance of the judicial pyramid. It is organized in three chambers: Constitutional, Civil–Commercial, and Criminal Chamber. This same constitution established the bases to strengthen the independence of the Paraguayan judicial power, among other factors, through the allocation of 3% of the budget from the nation to the judiciary, as well as the creation of bodies such as the Council of the Magistracy, for the integration of shortlists of candidates for judges, tax agents, public defenders, trustees, labor attorneys, etc., as well as lists that are sent to the Supreme Court of Justice for the selection of candidates. In the previous National Constitution (1967), it was the exclusive power of the executive branch to designate the members of the Supreme Court of Justice, the tribunals, judges, and other magistrates, a fact that undoubtedly seriously undermined the judicial independence in Paraguay.[17]

In Peru today, the rejection of the Political Constitution approved in 1993 coupled with the demand for a new one is the staple of radical leftist sectors who question the legitimacy of the birth of the Constitution during the de facto presidency of Alberto Fujimori.[18] The country has witnessed political crises that led to the downfall of several key players. First came the resignation in 2018 of former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, replaced by Martín Vizcarra, who announced that he would send a package of bills to Congress to reform the justice system. After some time, the government pressured Congress to approve the central projects of the package, for which a constitutional reform was required, to call a referendum in which the same population expressed its support or its rejection of the proposed changes. Three of the reforms were validated, being of interest to the judiciary the modifications in the conformation of the National Council of the Magistracy, the body in charge of appointing and removing the country’s magistrates. In accordance with Article 26 of its Organic Law, the Judiciary is made up of the Supreme Court of Justice, superior courts, specialized and mixed courts, legalized peace courts, and peace courts.

Regarding the judicial system in Uruguay, the most relevant of recent years is the new organization of the justice system, regulated with care and modernity by Organic Law No. 15.750 of 1985, with clear indications on the competences and jurisdictions of all the courts; regulation of the rights and obligations of magistrates, their assistants, and curiales; rules on the regulation of fees, etc., substituting with advantages the Code of Organization of Courts of the past. Additionally, the creation of Mediation Centers encouraged the judicial power as a way to solve family, labor, and neighborhood conflicts, so that they do not reach the ordinary system of courts and tribunals.

Finally, on December 15, 1999, the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was sanctioned with important changes for the judiciary. In the first place, it creates the Supreme Court of Justice with hierarchical superiority over the other courts of the Republic, the Public Ministry, the Public Defender’s Office, the criminal investigation bodies and the auxiliaries and justice officials. These, together with the prison system, the alternative means of justice, the citizens who participate in the administration of justice in accordance with the law and the lawyers authorized to exercise the exercise make up the Venezuelan justice system in accordance with Article 253 of the current constitution. The governing body of the judicial power enjoys functional, financial, and administrative autonomy and is responsible for the direction, government, and administration of the judicial power, the preparation and execution of its budget and the judicial power and the inspection and surveillance of the courts and the Public Defender’s Office.

4. International Jurisdiction

In Latin America there are several supranational courts of different orders, but almost all of them are linked to community integration processes, such as the Andean Court of Justice (for the countries of the Andean community), the Central American Court of Justice (for the Central American countries), and MERCOSUR (Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina).

Considering human rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights exists in San José, Costa Rica, as part of the Organization of American States (OAS). This court, created in the 1970s, has played an important role in the defense of human rights in the region. In recent times, said court has had various pronouncements (especially in the case of torture, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, etc.) that have affected and set aside various laws of the member countries, with which, inadvertently, it has become a body of international jurisdiction that defines some terms of the constitutions of each country, especially in cases where the domestic jurisdiction does not work or is exhausted, or there are no objective conditions for justice in a given country.

So, there has been a back-and-forth process. At some point it was thought that it was good to strengthen international jurisdiction to better protect human rights (at the beginning of the Inter American Humans Right System), but in the mid-eighties, the emphasis was on national channels, when democracies returned to the Latin American continent. Today the international jurisdiction has been appealed again, giving feedback between the two orders, the internal and the external, which without a doubt, has been beneficial for the protection of human rights.[19]

5. High Courts by Country[20]

5.1. Argentina

The National Judicial Power is made up of the Corte Suprema de Justicia de la Nación (Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation), the Consejo de la Magistratura de la Nación (Council of the Magistracy of the Nation), the Juzgados de Primera Instancia (Courts of First Instance), and the Cámaras de Apelaciones (Chambers of Appeals).

The Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation is the highest instance within the judicial power and is composed of five members: a president and four ministers. Its competence includes extraordinary resources in all those points governed by the Constitution and the laws of the nation and has original and exclusive competence in all matters that concern foreign ambassadors, ministers, and consuls, and in which any province is a part. Together with the Council of the Magistracy, it oversees the administration of the judicial power. The Council of the Magistracy oversees the selection of magistrates and the administration of the judicial power but does not exercise judicial power functions. (Art. 114 National Constitution). It is a collegiate body, representative of various sectors of the public power.

5.2. Bolivia

The Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice) is the highest court of ordinary justice. It has nine regular magistrates who make up the Plenary Chamber and three specialized chambers: the Civil, the Criminal, and the Specialized Chambers. There are other high-ranking courts such as the Tribunal Agroambiental (Agro-Environmental Court), the highest court specialized in environmental jurisdiction, forestry, water, and biodiversity issues.

Bolivia also has a Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional (Plurinational Constitutional Court), an independent body that provides constitutional justice. It is constituted by seven magistrates, who make the Plenary Chamber. The Consejo de la Magistratura de Justicia (Council of the Magistracy of Justice) is the body responsible for the disciplinary regime of the ordinary, agro-environmental jurisdiction and the specialized jurisdictions; the control and supervision of its administrative and financial management; and the formulation of management policies. The Council of the Magistracy is composed of seven magistrates.

5.3. Brazil

The Supremo Tribunal Federal de Brasil (Supreme Federal Court of Brazil) is the guardian of the Federal Constitution. It is responsible for, among other things, judging causes in which an allegation of violation of the Federal Constitution is at stake. It is composed by 11 Ministers, approved by the Federal Senate, and appointed by the President of the Republic. It is made up of two Chambers and a President. The Plenary is constituted of 11 Ministers and is chaired by the President of the Tribunal. The Chambers are each constituted of five Ministers in addition to the President of the Court.

The Superior Tribunal de Justiça (Superior Court of Justice) is the guardian of the uniformity of the interpretation of federal laws. To judge the causes, decided by the Federal Regional Courts or by the Courts of the States, Federal District, and Territories, that contravene a federal law or that give a federal law a different interpretation from that attributed by another Court. The Superior Court of Justice is made up of 33 Ministers, appointed by the President of the Republic.

5.4. Chile[21]

At the head of the judicial power is the Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice), a collegiate court based in Santiago, composed of 21 Ministers, one of whom is its President and lasts two years in office. The Ministers are appointed by the President of the Republic, who chooses them from a list proposed by the Supreme Court and approved by the Senate. The Supreme Court is the court that exercises the directive, correctional, and economic superintendence of the 450+ courts that make up the judicial power.

The exercise of constitutional control oversees the Tribunal Constitucional (Constitutional Court) with powers of preventive control, both in form and in substance, over laws, decrees, international treaties, etc. The court works both as a Plenum—to exercise its powers, especially to judge the constitutionality of laws—or divided into two Chambers to review admissibility of petitions. The Plenum is made up of at least eight members, while Chambers have at least four.

The Constitutional Court of Chile is comprised by ten members who are called ‘Justices.’ The highest authority of the Constitutional Court is its Chief Justice, who is elected by its members by majority vote, lasts two years in office, and may be reappointed for the following term. Decisions and agreements require simple majority as a general rule, and judgments must be granted according to law. Chambers shall rule on the admissibility of inapplicability remedies and of applications for stay of proceedings appealed within those remedies.

5.5. Colombia

At the head of ordinary justice is the Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice) with hierarchy over the Tribunales Superiores de Distrito Judicial (Superior Courts of the Judicial District) and the Juzgados Civiles y Municipales (Civil and Municipal Courts). At the head of the contentious-administrative jurisdiction is the Consejo de Estado (Council of State) with hierarchy over the Tribunales Administrativos (Administrative Courts) and the Juzgados Administrativos (Administrative Judged). At the head of the constitutional jurisdiction is the Corte Constitucional (Constitutional Court) with hierarchy over all the country's courts in matters within its competence.

Additionally, the 1991 Political Constitution added to the organization of the Colombian judicial power (judicial branch) the jurisdiction of peace, consisting of the Courts of the Peace and the jurisdiction of the indigenous communities made up of the Authorities of the Indigenous Territories. Operating as autarkic bodies are the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation and the Superior Council of the Judiciary (with hierarchy over the Sectional Councils of the Judiciary)

5.6. Costa Rica

In accordance with Article 49 of the Organic Law of the Judiciary, the Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice) is formed by four Chambers, three called Cassation Chambers: the First, Second, and Third Chambers and a Constitutional Chamber. The Chambers of the Court, except for the Constitutional Chamber and the Second Chamber, deal mainly with appeals.

The Constitutional Chamber oversees protecting and preserving the principle of Constitutional Supremacy, which establishes that no standard, treaty, regulation, or law of our legal system can be more important than the Constitution itself. Its main function is to hear and resolve constitutional matters, so that people can appeal to the Chamber through three ways, namely the habeas corpus appeal, the amparo appeal, and the unconstitutionality action. This Chamber is also aware of the legislative and judicial consultations on constitutionality and the appeal for protection of the right of reply.

5.7. Ecuador

The Corte Nacional de Justicia (National Court of Justice) has its headquarters in the city of Quito and exercises its jurisdiction throughout the national territory. It is made up of 21 judges who are organized in specialized rooms. They are appointed by the Consejo de la Judicatura (Council of the Judiciary) for a period of nine years.

Additionally, in each province a Corte Provincial de Justicia (Provincial Court of Justice) will function, made up of the number of judges necessary to hear the cases, as decided by the Judicial Council. The Council of the Judiciary is the governing, administrative, and disciplinary body of the judicial branch. This body is not jurisdictional, so it cannot administer justice such as the National Court of Justice, the provincial courts, or the courts of first instance. Its functions are limited to the administration and maintenance of the other institutions or bodies of the judicial function, evaluating judges and other justice operators (public officials of the judicial function), among others.

Finally, there are the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Court), the Tribunal De Apelaciones (Court of Appeals), the Tribunales de Primera Instancia (Courts of First Instance), the Tribunales Superiores De Justicia (Superior Courts of Justice), and the Tribunal Constitucional (Constitutional Court). In Ecuador, the Courts of the Peace must resolve in equity and have exclusive and mandatory competence to hear those individual, community, and neighborhood conflicts and violations that are subject to their jurisdiction, in accordance with the law. In no case can they order the deprivation of liberty or prevail over indigenous justice.

5.8. Mexico

The judicial power of the Federation is one of the three powers of the Union into which it divides the exercise of government in Mexico. It is made up of the Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación (Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation), the Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación (Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judicial Power), the Consejo de la Judicatura Federal (Council of the Federal Judiciary), the Juzgados de Distrito (District Courts), the Tribunales Colegiados de Circuito (Collegiate Circuit Courts), and the Tribunales Unitarios de Circuito (Unitary Circuit Courts).

The administration, surveillance, and discipline of the federal judicial power, except for the Supreme Court of Justice and the Electoral Tribunal, is in charge of the Federal Judicial Council. The Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation is the Constitutional Court of Mexico and the highest instance of the country's judicial system. It is made up of 11 ministers who act in plenary sessions or in chambers assigned to a certain jurisprudence. The Federal Electoral Tribunal is a specialized body of the judiciary, in charge of resolving controversies in electoral matters, protecting the political–electoral rights of citizens and administering justice in the electoral sphere. Circuit Courts are those with judicial competence in one of the territorial areas called circuits and are determined by law through the Council of the Judiciary. They are divided by areas of competence and integration into two: Collegiate and Unitary.

Finally, the Federal Judicial Council is the body in charge of the administration, surveillance, discipline, and judicial career of the federal judicial power, except for the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal. In addition, it must always ensure the autonomy of the federal judicial branch bodies and the independence and impartiality of its members. It is made up of seven members who last five years in office and must exercise their function independently and impartially.

5.9. Paraguay

At the head of the judicial power of Paraguay is the Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice), which is organized into three chambers: constitutional, civil, and criminal. This court has hierarchy over the Tribunales de Apelación (Courts of Appeal), which in turn are hierarchical superiors of the courts of first instance, which can be civil and commercial, criminal, or labor and peace courts.

The Electoral Justice comprises everything related to jurisdictional and administrative activity in order to guarantee the regularity of elections as well as their compliance with the law and the principles of the National Constitution. Its body of action is the Tribunal Superior de Justicia Electoral (Superior Court of Electoral Justice) established by the National Constitution in 1992. The convocation, trial, organization, direction, supervision, and surveillance of the acts and of the questions derived from the general elections—departmental and municipal—as well as the rights and titles of those who are elected, correspond exclusively to the Electoral Justice.

5.10. Peru

The Corte Suprema (Supreme Court), also known as the Tribunal Supremo, oversees interpreting the Constitution and controlling the constitutionality of laws and judicial decisions. It is the court of last instance, so its decisions cannot be challenged. Its jurisdiction extends to the entire territory of the country and is in the city of Lima. Since 2019, the Supreme Court has been composed of eight Supreme Chambers: the Permanent Civil Chamber, Transitory Civil Chamber, Permanent Criminal Chamber, Transitory Criminal Chamber, Permanent Constitutional and Social Law Chamber, First Chamber of Transitional Constitutional and Social Law, Second Chamber of Transitory Constitutional and Social Law, and Third Chamber of Transitory Constitutional and Social Law.

The Superior Court of Justice is the second hierarchical level in which the judicial power is organized. They are only under the authority of the Supreme Court of the Republic, and it is the last body that knows of a process. Throughout Peru there are 35 Superior Courts of Justice. In addition, there is the Corte Superior de Justicia Especializada en Delitos de Crimen Organizado y de Corrupción de Funcionarios (Superior Court of Justice Specialized in Crimes of Organized Crime and Corruption of Officials), which has been established on the basis of the merger of the National Criminal Chamber and the Specialized System in Crimes of Corruption of Officials.

5.11. Uruguay

The highest judicial court in Uruguay is the Suprema Corte de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice). It is made up of five members elected by the Asamblea General Legislativa (General Legislative Assembly). It has superiority over the Tribunales de Apelaciones (Courts of Appeals), the Juzgados Letrados (Legal Courts), the Juzgados de Conciliación (Conciliation Courts), and the Juzgados de Paz (Peace Courts). All courts divide their functions (competences) according to matter (civil, criminal, family), place, and the importance of the matter (amount). The amounts are set by the Supreme Court and are readjusted.

5.12. Venezuela

The Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice) is the highest court in the Republic and guarantees the supremacy and effectiveness of constitutional norms and principles. It is the highest and last interpreter of the Constitution and will ensure its uniform interpretation and application. It is divided into the Full Chamber, Constitutional Chamber, Political-Administrative Chamber, Electoral Chamber, Civil Cassation Chamber, Criminal Cassation Chamber, and Social Cassation Chamber.

The Dirección Ejecutiva de la Magistratura Órgano (Executive Directorate of the Magistracy Body) depends hierarchically and functionally on the Full Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice and is in charge of exercising, by delegation, the administration of the judicial power. Additionally, there is the permanent Comisión Permanente del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Commission of the Supreme Court of Justice), made up of six magistrates whose objective is to coordinate the activities and performance of the Escuela Nacional de la Magistratura (National School of the Magistracy), the Inspectoría General de Tribunales (General Inspectorate of Courts and the inspection), and surveillance of public defense.

The Cortes de Apelaciones (Courts of Appeals) and Tribunales Superiores (Superior Courts) follow the Supreme Court of Justice in hierarchy. The Courts of Appeals are found only in criminal matters, while the Superior Courts are found in the rest of the branches of law and fulfill the same function. These courts are distributed throughout the country and assigned to certain geographical areas called judicial districts. At present, there are 24 judicial districts.

Country Information about Judicial Power

Justice System of Argentina

Official Website of Argentina's Judicial Power

Ministry of Justice and Human Rights

Supreme Court


Justice System of Bolivia

Website of the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice)

Tribunal Constitucional Pluinacional de Bolivia

Website of the Órgano Electoral Plurinacional (Plurinational Electoral Organ)


Supremo Tribunal Federal do Brasil (Supreme Federal Court of Brazil)

Structure of Brazil's Judicial Power

Special Courts


Official Website of Chile's Judicial Power

Website of the Tribunal Constitucional (Constitutional Tribunal)

Structure of Chile's Judicial Power


Official Website of Colombia's Judicial Branch

Website of the Constitutional Court

Website of the Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council)

Costa Rica

History of Costa Rica's Judicial Power

Official Website of Costa Rica's Judicial Power

Website of the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (Supreme Court of Elections)


Information on Ecuador's Judicial Power

Website of the Corte Nacional de Justicia (National Court of Justice)

Website of the Constitutional Court

Official Website of Ecuador's Judiciary


Website of the Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación (Supreme Court)

Website of the Tribunal Electoral (Electoral Court)

Website of the Consejo de la Judicatura Federal (Federal Judiciary Council)


Website of the Corte Suprema de Justicia (Supreme Court)

Website of the Tribunal Electoral (Electoral Court)


Official Website of Peru's Judicial Power

Website of the Jurado Nacional de Elecciones (National Jury of Elections)

Information on Peru's Judicial Power (Wikipedia)


Information on Uruguay's Judicial Power

Official Website of Uruguay's Judicial Power

Database of the Electoral Court of Uruguay (registration required)


Information on Venezuela's Justice System

Website of the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice)

Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council)

7. Bibliography

[1] Acuña, A. Alonso, G. La Reforma Judicial en América Latina: Un estudio político-institucional de las reformas judiciales en Argentina, Brasil, Chile y México, Departamento de Humanidades, Universidad de San Andrés 2003. A

[2] Id.

[3] Helmke, G., & Ríos-Figueroa, J. (2011). Introduction. In G. Helmke & J. Rios-Figueroa (Eds.), Courts in Latin America (pp. 1-26). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511976520.001.

[4] J van Zyl Smit, Judicial Appointments in Latin America: The Implications of Tenure and Appointment Processes, Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, 2016.

[5] Organismo Judicial de Guatemala, Historia del Organismo Judicial, Corte Suprema de Justicia, 2018.

[6] García Belaunde, D. “Los tribunales constitucionales en América Latina.” 2004.

[7] De Zubiría Samper, A. “La historia de la Rama Judicial en Colombia,” Criterio Jurídico Garantista. Año 3, No. 6. Ene.-Jun. de 2012.

[8] García Belaunde, D. “Los tribunales constitucionales en América Latina.” 2004.

[9] María Patricia Sotomayor Valarezo. “El poder constitucional en América Latina: hacia una tipología de las cortes constitucionales de la región.” Revista Opera, núm. 24, 2019.

[10] Acuña, A. Alonso, G. La Reforma Judicial en América Latina: Un estudio político-institucional de las reformas judiciales en Argentina, Brasil, Chile y México. Carlos H. Departamento de Humanidades, Universidad de San Andrés 2003.

[11] Sticotti, J. “El final del silencio. Dictadura, sociedad y derechos humanos en la transición (Argentina, 1979-1983) de Marina Franco.” Guay, 2019.

[12] Almagro Castro, D. La problemática del poder de reforma constitucional en Brasil: cláusulas pétreas, control judicial de enmiendas constitucionales y principio democrático. Revista de Derecho Político, 2015, vol. 94, p. 255-280.

[13] Pfeiffer, A. “El proceso de justicia transicional en Chile desde las relaciones de poder: la dimensión política jurisprudencial.” Revista Historia y Justicia N°3, Santiago de Chile, octubre 2014, p. 256-284.

[14] Gómez Roldán, A. “El movimiento de la séptima papeleta rente al referendo. Posición jurídica ante la Corte Constitucional de una generación de colombianos y colombianas que ayudaron a construir la Constitución Política de 1991.” Papel político, 2011, vol. 16, no. 2, p. 365-380.

[15] Sánez Carbonel, F. Historia de la Corte Suprema de Costa Rica. San José, Editorama 2006.

[16] Galante, M. “La historiografía reciente de la justicia en México, siglo XIX: perspectivas, temas y aportes”. Revista complutense de historia de América, 2011, vol. 37, p. 93-115.

[17] Stabili, M.R., “Opareí. La justicia de transición en Paraguay.” América Latina Hoy, 2012, vol. 61, p. 137-162.

[18] Salazar, M. “Autonomía e independencia del poder judicial Peruano en un estado social y democrático de derecho.” Revista Ciencia y Tecnología, 2014, vol. 10, no 2, p. 147-161.

[19] González Morales, F. “Surgimiento y desarrollo del sistema interamericano de derechos humanos en un contexto de regímenes autoritarios (1960-1990).” Revista IIDH, 2007, no 46, p. 123-157.

[20] All the information in this section (except for Chile) was taken from: Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación “Estructura y Competencia de las Cortes y Tribunales Supremos de Justicia en Iberoamérica.” México (2006).

[21] Pfeiffer, A. “El proceso de justicia transicional en Chile desde las relaciones de poder: la dimensión política jurisprudencial.” Revista Historia y Justicia N°3, Santiago de Chile, octubre 2014, p. 256-284.