This should make Uruguayans happy since only 20 countries in the world are part of this select group. As if that were not enough in itself, we are also ranked higher (No. 19) than the United States (No. 20).
Uruguay has a genuine separation of powers, with checks and balances that work, and with an independent press reporting freely from various viewpoints. The media’s ability to investigate and report freely, in fact, is essential to democratic government. As Thomas Jefferson proclaimed: “an informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”
All in all, individual rights are guaranteed and protected in Uruguay. Nevertheless, there is reason to worry about the independence and competence of the judiciary branch, without which republican institutions cannot work properly.
In my view, of the three branches of state power, the judiciary is the one most relevant to the citizens’ welfare because its role is to enforce the Constitution. It has to limit the rulers’ power and thereby protect the common man. A competent judiciary is essential to the rule of law, to the republican form of government, and to the protection of individual rights from the rulers’ overreach.
In Uruguay, there are two types of threats to judiciary independence. In the first place, there is a budgetary problem.
This situation prompted then Supreme Court president Jorge Chediak to declare that, “for the first tim in the national budget, the judiciary does not count with the requested funds.”
[adrotate group=”8″]The money requested, Chediak explained, was not to be used to increase officials’ salaries, but strictly to improve the quality of judicial services for the citizens.
Some believe that the government’s intention is to punish the judiciary branch. During Jose Mujica’s presidency (2010-2015), in fact, the Supreme Court declared several laws which he promoted to be unconstitutional. This prompted Mujica’s anger. He even tried to reform the Constitution in order to do away with the Supreme Court’s ability to declare laws constitutionally invalid and give this faculty to a new, “independent” body.
The conflict between the judiciary and the executive, in fact, began in 2011, when Mujica’s government denied judges a 26% salary increase.
Chediak recently said that “the operation of one of the three branches of government is in trouble for lack of funds, which is not good for the country’s democratic health.” He stressed that “it’s already difficult to keep the service running as it has.”
A Crisis Committee has been created in order to analyze how to reduce costs to the “bare minimum.” Even so, if the Executive does not grant a budget support, the judiciary will be forced to “suspend services before year end”.
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This will obviously make it difficult for the judiciary to properly fulfill its constitutional role. Chediak stressed that “Uruguayan democracy is unique and depends on the proper functioning of the three powers (…) When the engines are strong, the brakes must be strong too.”
Nevertheless, the budget crisis is relatively easy to solve in the short term. As long as citizens have the right information about how the ruling party is financing the judiciary branch, they can demand that the proper steps be taken.
The second kind of danger to Uruguay’s judiciary branch is a significant decrease in the quality of legal education. This threat is less visible than the first, but its potential consequences are tremendous and permanent.
According to Elena Martínez, Supreme Court Minister and professor at the Catholic University and the Center for Uruguay Judicial Studies of (CEJU), Uruguayan “law students have seriously diminished their ability to express themselves orally and in writing”.
She added that legal education has become “too theoretical”. This creates difficulties when students have to apply knowledge to practice. Martínez stated that there is a “huge gap between knowledge and know-how”.
Since there is an intrinsic relationship between language and thought, those who cannot express themselves clearly tend to think in a muddled fashion as well. If this is harmful to individuals in general, it is even more detrimental in the case of judges, who should analyze the information before them with logic and a superior understanding of the law.
The judiciary’s moment of weakness is a moment of danger for Uruguay’s democracy.