The judicial branch of government is headed by the Supreme Court of Justice. The number of magistrates on the Supreme Court is not stipulated in the Constitution but is determined by other statutes. Magistrates are required to be Salvadoran by birth, more than forty years of age, and lawyers who have practiced for at least ten years or who have served as judges in a chamber of second instance for six years or on a court of first instance for nine years. Clergymen are prohibited from serving as magistrates. The president of the Supreme Court directs the business of the Supreme Court and functions as the head of the judicial branch. Magistrates are appointed by the Legislative Assembly to fiveyear terms.
The Supreme Court is divided into three chambers, or salas. The Constitutional Chamber (Sala de lo Constitucional), composed of the Supreme Court president and four other magistrates, rules on the constitutionality of laws and hears cases involving the invocation of amparo (restraint against the infringement of an individual's rights) or of habeas corpus. The remaining chambers of the Supreme Court, the Civil Chamber and the Criminal Chamber, serve as the last level of appeal in these legal categories.
Below the Supreme Court are the chambers of second instance, or courts of appeal. Each chamber is composed of two magistrates, who hear appeals of decisions handed down in the courts of first instance. There were fourteen chambers of second instance in 1986. The courts of first instance hear both civil and criminal cases; there were some eighty-seven such courts in 1986. The broadest level of the legal system is the justice of the peace courts. Numbering approximately 193 in 1986 and located throughout the country, the justice of the peace courts decide only cases involving misdemeanors and minor civil suits.
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