The judicial system is divided into upper and lower levels with effective power resting in the Supreme Court of Justice. The Supreme Court of Justice consists of a president and eleven ministros (justices) who serve in three chambers for civil, penal, and social and administrative matters. Justices are elected for ten-year terms by the Chamber of Deputies from a list proposed by the Senate, and they cannot be reelected. To become a justice, a person must be a Bolivian by birth, have been a judge for ten years, be a lawyer, and meet all the requirements to become a senator.
Under the Constitution of 1967, the Supreme Court of Justice has the power to determine the constitutionality of laws, decrees, and resolutions approved by the executive and legislative branches of government. Moreover, it serves as the arena for malfeasance trials of public officers, including the president, vice president, and ministers of state, for crimes committed while in office.
The Senate elects members of the superior district courts of justice from a list proposed by the Supreme Court of Justice. It also elects members of a complex set of national labor courts. Members of the superior district courts are elected for six years, whereas jueces de partido (lower-court, or sectional, judges) and instructores or jueces de instrucción (investigating judges) are elected to four-year terms but may be reelected. The nine superior district courts hear appeals in both civil and criminal matters from decisions rendered on the trial level by the courts in each department.
Juzgados de partido (civil and criminal trial courts) are established in departmental capitals and in towns and cities throughout Bolivia. The criminal sections have investigating judges who investigate and prepare criminal cases for trial when appropriate. These cases are tried by sectional judges. Commercial and civil matters on personal and property actions are heard by the civil sections of the trial courts.
A number of small claims courts are scattered throughout the country and are limited to actions involving personal and real property or personal actions. Larger claims may be submitted to the same court, but the parties have the right of appeal to the sectional judge.
At the bottom of the judicial system are the mayors' courts, which consist of local judgeships. The civil jurisdiction of these courts is limited to hearing small claims and, in the criminal field, chiefly to police and correctional matters.
Theoretically, the judiciary is an autonomous and independent institution with far-reaching powers. In reality, the judicial system remains highly politicized; its members often represent partisan viewpoints and agendas. Court membership still reflects political patronage. As a result, the administration of justice is held hostage to the whims of party politics. Because members often also represent departmental interests, a national legal culture has not been fully developed.
Owing to years of military rule, Bolivia's legal culture has stagnated. The closure of universities in the 1970s resulted in a declining system of legal education. Only in the late 1980s did the Bolivian legal system have access to developments in organization and theory that had taken place in other nations. In 1989 AID initiated a program to overhaul the system of the administration of justice. In the opinion of most observers, however, the near-term prospects for implementing any reforms appeared poor.
Of particular concern in the 1980s was the increasing influence exercised by the cocaine industry over judges and even justices of the Supreme Court of Justice. Because of their low salaries, members of the courts were susceptible to the offers of the large amounts of money by narcotics traffickers.
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