Like all previous charters, the 1967 constitution established the judicial branch as an independent power of the state. The Supreme Court of Justice headed the judiciary, both civilian and military. Lower civilian courts included six appellate courts (for civil matters, criminal matters, and labor matters), courts of first instance (sometimes referred to as lawyer courts [juzgados letrados]), and justice of the peace courts.
During the military regime (1973-85), the Ministry of Justice administered the courts, and military officers were appointed to the highest courts. As a result of the 1984 Naval Club Pact, which clipped the powers of the military courts, the judicial branch regained its autonomy when Sanguinetti assumed office on March 1, 1985. That May the General Assembly, despite the opposition of the Colorado Party, declared all posts of the Supreme Court of Justice vacant on the grounds that none of the justices had been legally appointed. Accordingly, all of the military officers appointed by the military regime to the high court or the appellate courts retired from their positions. Sanguinetti then formally abolished the Ministry of Justice, retaining only the minister of justice post. Nevertheless, there was a continuing public debate during his administration over the need to reform the legal and judicial systems.
Located in Montevideo, the Supreme Court of Justice managed the entire judicial system. It prepared budgets for the judiciary and submitted them to the General Assembly for approval, proposed all legislation regarding the functioning of the courts, appointed judges to the appellate courts, and nominated all other judges and judicial officials. It had the power to modify any decisions made by the appellate courts and was the only court allowed to declare the unconstitutionality of laws passed by the General Assembly. It alone decided on conflicts affecting diplomats and international treaties, the execution of the rulings of foreign courts, and relations among agencies of the government. The president of the Supreme Court of Justice was empowered to attend meetings of the committees of both chambers of the General Assembly and had a voice in discussion but had no vote.
A conference of the two chambers of the General Assembly appointed the five members of the Supreme Court of Justice. The justices had to be between forty and seventy years of age, native-born citizens in full possession of their civil rights, or legal citizens with ten years' exercise of their rights and twenty-five years of residence in the country. They also had to have been a lawyer for ten years or to have been a judge or member of the Public Ministry for eight years. (The Public Ministry consisted of the public attorneys, headed by the "attorney general of the court and attorney of the country," who acted independently before the Supreme Court of Justice.) Members served for ten years and could be reelected after a break of five years. At the appointment of the president, two military justices served on the Supreme Court of Justice on an ad hoc basis and participated only in cases involving the military.
Each of the appellate courts, also located in Montevideo, had three judges appointed by the Supreme Court of Justice with the consent of the Senate. To be a member, one had to be at least thirty-five years of age, a native-born citizen or legal citizen for seven years, and a lawyer with at least eight years of experience or otherwise engaged in a law-related profession for at least six years. An appellate court judge was obliged to retire by age seventy. These courts did not have original jurisdiction but heard appeals from lower courts. The appellate courts divided responsibilities for civil matters (including matters concerning commerce, customs, and minors), as well as for criminal and labor affairs.
In Montevideo Department, the judges of first instance, sometimes referred to as lawyer judges (jueces letrados), decided on the appeals to lower-court rulings. In 1990 Montevideo Department had forty judges of first instance, including eighteen who decided on civil matters, four on minors, three on customs, ten on criminal cases, and five on labor cases.
Outside Montevideo Department, the first decision on all cases of civil, family, customs, criminal, or labor law was submitted to the municipal judges of first instance. Each department had up to five municipal judges of first instance, located in the major cities. They could rule on most minor cases, with the exception of those that were within the competence of the justices of the peace. Both municipal judges of first instance and the Montevideo Department judges of first instance had to have previously served as justices of the peace.
At the lowest level, each of the country's 224 judicial divisions had a justice of the peace court. The Supreme Court of Justice appointed the 224 justices of the peace for four-year terms. They had to be at least twenty-five years of age, nativeborn citizens or legal citizens for two years, and in full possession of their civil rights. Those who served in Montevideo Department and the capitals and major cities of other departments had to be lawyers; those in rural areas had to be either lawyers or notaries. Their jurisdiction was limited to cases involving eviction, breach of contract, collection of rent, and all smallclaims commercial and business cases.
The law recognized only one category of lawyer. In order to practice law, an individual had to first obtain the degree of law and social sciences from the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences of the University of the Republic (also known as the University of Montevideo). The degree was granted by the university after the successful completion of six years of studies. Candidates had to be at least twenty-one years of age, listed in the Register of Lawyers maintained by the Supreme Court of Justice, not be under indictment for a crime penalized by corporal punishment, and not have been convicted of a crime. A public defender system was established in 1980 with the placing of lawyers in all courts to assist those unable to pay for their services. Public defenders-- appointed jointly by the president and the minister of justice-- protected the society's interests.
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