The judicial branch of government consists of a Supreme Court of Justice, courts of appeal, courts of first instance (Juzgados de Letras), and justices of the peace. The Supreme Court, which is the court of last resort, has nine principal justices and seven alternates. The Supreme Court has fourteen constitutional powers and duties. These include the appointment of judges and justices of the lower courts and public prosecutors; the power to declare laws to be unconstitutional; the power to try high-ranking government officials when the National Congress has declared that there are grounds for impeachment; and publication of the court's official record, the Gaceta Judicial. The court has three chambers-- civil, criminal, and labor--with three justices assigned to each chamber.
Organizationally below the Supreme Court are the courts of appeal. These courts are three-judge panels that hear all appeals from the lower courts, including civil, commercial, criminal and habeas corpus cases. To be eligible to sit on these courts, the judges must be attorneys and at least twenty-five years old. In the early 1990s, there were nine courts of appeal, four in Tegucigalpa, two in San Pedro Sula, and one each in La Ceiba, Comayagua, and Santa Bárbara. Two of these courts of appeal, one in the capital and one in San Pedro Sula, specialized in labor cases. In addition, a contentious-administrative court, which dealt with public administration, was located in Tegucigalpa, but had jurisdiction throughout the country.
The next level of courts are first instance courts, which serve as trial courts in serious civil and criminal cases. In the early 1990s, there were sixty-four such courts. Although half of the first instance courts were in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, each departmental capital had at least one. Half of the sixty-four courts covered both civil and criminal cases, eight just covered criminal cases, and seven covered civil cases. There were also six labor courts, six family courts, two juvenile courts, two tenant courts, and one contentious-administrative court. Most of the judges, who must be at least twenty-one years old, held degrees in juridical science. Although judges are required to be licensed attorneys, many in fact are not.
The lowest level of the court system consists of justices of the peace distributed throughout the country. Each department capital and municipalities with populations of more than 4,000 are supposed to have two justices, and municipalities with populations less than 4,000 are supposed to have one justice of the peace. Justices of the peace handling criminal cases act as investigating magistrates and are involved only in minor cases. More serious criminal cases are handled by the first instance courts. Justices of the peace must be more than twenty-one years of age, live in the municipality where they have jurisdiction, and have the ability to read and write. In 1990 there were an estimated 320 justices of the peace, with thirty responsible for civil cases, thirty for criminal cases, and the remaining 260 justices covering both civil and criminal cases. Political patronage has traditionally been the most important factor in appointing justices of the peace, and this practice has often led to less than qualified judicial personnel, some of whom have not completed primary education.
The constitution requires that the judicial branch of government is to receive not less than 3 percent of the annual national budget, but in practice this requirement has never been met. For example, in 1989 the judiciary received 1.63 percent of the national budget, just slightly more than one-half of the amount constitutionally required.
As in previous years, in the early 1990s the Honduran judicial system has been the subject of numerous criticisms, including widespread corruption and continuing ineffectiveness with regard to holding military members or civilian elites accountable for their crimes. According to the United States Department of State's human rights report for 1992, the civilian judiciary in Honduras "is weak, underfunded, politicized, inefficient, and corrupt." The report further charged that the judiciary remains vulnerable to outside influence and suffers from woefully inadequate funding, and that the Callejas government is unable to ensure that many human rights violations are fully investigated, or that most of the perpetrators, either military or civilian, are brought to justice. Justice is reported to be applied inequitably, with the poor punished according to the law, but the rich or politically influential almost never brought to trial, much less convicted or jailed.
One frequent criticism has focused on the executive branch's dominance over the judiciary. Because a new Supreme Court is appointed every four years with the change in the presidency and because the executive essentially controls the selection of the justices, the judiciary is largely beholden to the president. This loyalty to the executive permeates the judicial branch because the Supreme Court appoints all lower court justices. To eliminate this partisanship in the courts, the Modernization of the State Commission, established by President Callejas, proposed that the constitution be amended to change the way Supreme Court justices are appointed. According to the proposal, justices would hold seven-year appointments and would be selected from a list of candidates developed by a special committee composed of those who work in the justice sector.
Another criticism notes that judicial personnel are often unqualified for their positions. Although a Judicial Career Law (which requires that all hiring and promotions be based on merit and that all firings based on cause) was approved in 1980, the government did not begin implementing the law until 1991 because of the overall lack of political will. The United States Department of State's human rights report for 1992 maintained that results have been few, but AID states that the law could be fully implemented by 1995. AID has lent support to the Honduran court since 1985 and in 1989 began an experimental program designed to improve the selection process for justices of the peace so that the appointed justices would hold law degrees. By 1991 the AID program accounted for the qualifications of eighty-one justices of the peace, and AID estimated that by 1995 about half of all justices of the peace would have law degrees.
Closely associated with the judicial system and the administration of justice in Honduras is the Office of the Attorney General, which, as provided in the constitution, is the legal representative of the state, representing the state's interests. Both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general are elected by the National Congress for a period of four years, coinciding with the presidential and legislative terms of office. The attorney general is expected to initiate civil and criminal actions based on the results of the audits of the Office of the Comptroller General. The law creating the Office of the Attorney General was first enacted in 1961.
Although some public prosecutors operate out of the Office of the Attorney General, most operate out of the Office of the Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court. The public prosecutor of the Supreme Court also serves as chief of the Prosecutor General's Office (Ministerio Público) as provided under the 1906 Law of the Organization and Attributions of the Courts. In April 1993, the Ad Hoc Commission for Institutional Reform created by President Callejas recommended the creation of a Prosecutor General's Office as an independent, autonomous, and apolitical organization, not under either the Supreme Court or the Office of the Attorney General. The prosecutor general would be appointed by the National Congress by a two-thirds vote for a seven-year appointment. The ad hoc commission also recommended that this new Prosecutor General's Office have under it a newly created Department of Criminal Investigation (Departamento de Investigación Criminal--DIC), a police and investigatory corps that would replace the current DIN, a department of the Public Security Force (Fuerza de Seguridad Pública--Fusep) that has often been associated with human rights abuses.
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