Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Is the firing of justices actually legal? Part I

Honduras' Supreme Court has voted, 10-5, to reaffirm its firing of justices who were opposed to the coup d'Etat that removed President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales in June of 2009, insisting this is a necessary defense of legality. With this, as we have previously noted, they reinforce their history of obstinate self-defense of actions that align the court with the coup.

But what, precisely, is the legal basis that the majority on the court claims? and what can this tell us about the nature of the Honduran Supreme Court, and its role in what is clearly a fragile constitutional state? To answer this, we need to trace through the thicket of Honduran law yet again, which will require more than a single post.

The president of the court has been firm: his actions were not retaliation for the opinions of the dismissed justices; they were a judgment that those justices had violated ethical rules. Yet to date, he has been unwilling to release the actual document of the court's decision, that might clarify this puzzling claim, even in response to the request by Sandra Ponce, Fiscal de Derechos Humanos in the Lobo Sosa government.

Let's go back to an article published in La Prensa on May 6, quoting Supreme Court spokesman Danilo Izaguirre, that gives us a beginning point to trace the specific violations for which the anti-coup justices were supposedly disciplined. According to Izaguirre, the following crimes were charged against each:
  • Adán Guillermo López: "having participated in the violent demonstration in the outskirts of Toncontín airport on July 5, 2009 that concluded with a confrontation with police agents"; specifically, ending up with a wound in his left knee is described as "conduct incongruent with the legal norms that rule the discharge of justices and magistrates"

  • Ramón Enrique Barrios "made declarations in a newspaper affirming that there was not a constitutional succession, published on August 18, 2009". Barrios argued that his statements, made in the course of teaching law at the UNAH campus in San Pedro Sula and only later published, were protected under academic freedom.

  • Tirza Flores Lanza "absented herself from her judicial office on the 30th of June, 2009, being found that day in Tegucigalpa taking actions that are not inherent in her position without having a leave", in particular, taking part in filing a legal document.

While the specific charges against the other two dismissed at the same time, justice Luis Alonso Chévez de la Rocha and public defender Osman Fajardo Morel, are not noted, they are described in other sources as being accused for having taken part in the same demonstration as Guillermo López, on the day that Manuel Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras by air the first week after the coup.

It would seem almost impossible to deny that these individuals were punished by the Supreme Court for being on the other side of the debate about the legality of the coup.

The same article, relying on the spokesman of the Supreme Court, provides us the beginning point to trace the purported legal basis for these actions, giving citations of specific legal codes held to be violated for López, Barrios, and Flores Lanza.

To follow the apparent logic of the Supreme Court, we need to turn to those legal claims, a task that will take us back into questions of the organization of Honduran government and the still weak integration of judicial reforms that has been underway in the past decade. The complexity of these issues requires a series of separate posts.

But at the end of the day-- regardless of the way that legal codes are being marshaled-- the Supreme Court's own spokesman confirmed, on May 6, that the actions for which these justices are being disciplined were their expressions of opposition to the coup.

No matter what the legal framework, the choice to pursue these individuals is political, as even Porfirio Lobo Sosa points out.

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