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Judicial Power in Latin America: a Short Survey

  • Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns


This article, written by Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns, explores the vast differences in judicial authority not only between the common law and civil law traditions, but also among various countries steeped in the civil law tradition in Latin America. Judicial review, certiorari, precedent, and other functions and characteristics of the judiciaries of five distinctly different countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico) are compared and contrasted with each other and with the common law tradition. This evaluation demonstrates that despite their, arguably, similar distant histories and legal foundations, each country has evolved into a unique legal system with significant differences in the treatment of the judiciary and its jurisprudence.



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1 “This view of case law has its roots in the Code Napoleon and can be traced into the nineteenth century codes of civil law drafted for Chile and Colombia, for example.” Mirow, M.C., Latin American Law: A History of Private Law and Institutions in Spanish America (University of Texas Press 2004) 197.

2 [Latin “to be more fully informed”] (15c). In the United States, “The discretionary writ of certiorari has come to control access to almost all branches of Supreme Court jurisdiction. Appeal jurisdiction has been narrowly limited, and certification of questions from federal courts of appeals has fallen into almost complete desuetude. Certiorari control over the cases that come before the Court enables the Court to define its own institutional role.” Certiorari’ in Garner, Bryan A. (ed) Black's Law Dictionary (10th ednThomson Reuters 2014) citing Wright, Charles Alan et al. , Federal Practice and Procedure §4004 (2d ednThomson Reuters 1996), 22.

3 [Latin “to stand by things decided”] (18c) The doctrine of precedent, under which a court must follow earlier judicial decisions when the same points arise again in litigation. Stare Decisis’ in Garner, Bryan A. (ed) Black's Law Dictionary (10th ednThomson Reuters 2014).

4 [Latin “toward all”]. Erga omnes’ in Garner, Bryan A. (ed) Black's Law Dictionary (10th ednThomson Reuters 2014).

5 [Latin “between parties”] (1816) Between two or more parties; with two or more parties in a transaction. Inter partes’ in Garner, Bryan A. (ed) Black's Law Dictionary (10th ednThomson Reuters 2014).

6 Brinks, Daniel M., ‘“Faithful Servants of the Regime:” The Brazilian Constitutional Court's Role under the 1988 Constitution’ in Helmke, Gretchen and Ríos-Figueroa, Julio (eds), Courts in Latin America (CUP 2011), 132.

7 ibid 133, “courts that can choose their own agenda through discretionary docket control are better able to focus and target their decisions, to choose their allies and their enemies, and to avoid cases that might be hazardous to their health.”

8 Arceneaux, Craig L., Democratic Latin America (Pearson 2013) 192.

9 From the Spanish, amparar: to favor, protect, support, defend (this author's translation). ‘Amparar’ in Real Academia Española (ed) Diccionario de Lengua Española (22nd edn 2012) <> accessed 31 March 2015.

10 Arceneaux (n 8) 191–2; see also, Gloria Orrego-Hoyos, ‘The Amparo Context in Latin American Jurisdiction: An Approach to an Empowering Action’ (GlobaLex, April 2013) <> Accessed 27 March 2015. Amparo has been adopted by several other countries around the world.

11 Post, Robert (ed) Global Constitutionalism: Constitutional Administration (Yale Law School 2009) V-8, citing MacCormick, D. Neil and Summers, Robert S., Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study (Ashgate 1997) 531, 532. In 2009, Yale Law School's Global Constitutionalism Seminar featured a section on precedent focusing on continental European civil law systems and the UK, Canada, and US common law traditions. As part of the seminar, preparatory readings were collated resulting in the above-cited, Global Constitutionalism publication.

12 Arceneaux (n 8) 188-193.

13 “As a matter of civilian methodology, there is almost no tradition of differentiating systematically in regard to a precedent opinion between ratio decidendi and obiter dicta – between holding and dictum – as in the common law, and this is true of fields of law not closely controlled by code of statute…” in  Post (n 11)  V-11, citing MacCormick and Summers (n 11) 537 (this concluding chapter contains an excellent summary of the primary differences in the treatment of precedent between common law and civil law jurisdictions).

14 González, Antonio Canova, El Modelo Iberoamericano de Justicia Constitucional: Característica y Originalidad (Ediciones Paredes 2012) 140 (this author's translation).

15 ibid 137 (emphasis added to inidicate which countries are examined in this paper.)

16 At the time Canova González wrote his chapter, Bolivia had not yet created the country's current Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional and had not yet passed complementing legislation which provides that the TCP's rationale constitutes binding precedent for future decisions. Therefore, Canova González placed Bolivia in the middle column; I have moved it to the first (this is a theoretical move since it is still too early in the TCP's life to accurately judge its true power).

17 Canova González (n 14) 137, admits that debate exists regarding the power of Brazil's highest court. Constitutional Amendments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have provided for some express method of creating binding precedent in very limited circumstances. More details in the section on Brazil.

18 Arceneaux (n 8) 215.

19 de Sousa, Mariana Magaldi, ‘How Courts Engage in the Policymaking Process in Latin America’ in Scartascini, Carlos, Stein, Ernesto, and Tommasi, Mariano (eds), How Democracy Works: Political Institutions, Actors, and Arenas in Latin American Policymaking (Inter-American Development Bank and David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University 2010) 113.

20 Ley de Amparo, Art. 192-3 (1936) as amended 24 June 2011 <> accessed 18 March 2015. (This author's translation.) Jurisprudencia in Mexico is used only to describe decisions of binding precedent. The term is used more generically in other countries and refers to any and all opinions of the courts.

21 Ley de Amparo, Art. 222–4 (2013) <> accessed 18 March 2015. (This author's translation.)

22 Jose Maria Serna de la Garza, ‘The Concept of Jurisprudencia in Mexican Law’ (2009) 1 (2) Mex.LR citing Ley Orgánica del Poder Judicial de la Federación as amended 24 May 1995 <> accessed 18 March 2015. This article provides a detailed explanation and analysis of both binding and non-binding decisions jurisprudencia in Mexico.

23 ibid.

24 ibid.

25 Arceneaux (n 8) 215.

26 Magaldi de Sousa (n 19) 113.

27 Marisol Floren-Romero, ‘Mapping the Digital Legal Information of Mexico, Central America, the Spanish Speaking Caribbean and Haiti’ (2012) 40 IJLI 417, 428. Information updated by this author.

28 Keith S. Rosenn, ‘Judicial Review in Brazil: Developments under the 1988 Constitution’ (2000) 7 Sw.J.L. & Trade Am. 291, 293–4.

29 ibid 302.

30 Rodrigo M. Nunes, ‘Politic without Insurance: Democratic Competition and Judicial Reform in Brazil’ (2010) 42 Comp. Pol. 313, 316.

31 Rosenn (n 28) 302.

32 Nunes (n 30) 318; see also, Diana Kapiszewski, High Courts and Economic Governance in Argentina and Brazil (CUP 2012), 99.

33 Nunes (n 30) 318.

34 Teresa Miguel, ‘The Digital Legal Landscape in South America: Government Transparency and Access to Information’ (2012) 40 IJLI 64–5.

35 Rosenn (n 28) 296.

37 Nunes (n 30) 318, 326–7.

38 STF, ‘Súmulas Vinculantes’ <> accessed 17 March 2015.

39 Kapiszewski (n 32) 96–7; Brinks (n 6) 136.

40 Miguel (n 34) 65.

41 ibid 65–6. Updated and accessed by this author on 17 March 2015.

42 Christopher Walker, ‘Toward Democratic Consolidation? The Argentine Supreme Court, Judicial Independence, and the Rule of Law’ (2008) 4 HCQR 54, 70.

43 ibid 71.

44 ibid 72.

45 ibid.

46 Campos, German J. Bidart, La Corte Suprema: El Tribunal de las Garantías Constitucionales (Ediar 2010) 21, citing Pastorino v. Ronillon (1883) [1884] 25 Fallos de La Corte Suprema de Justicia de La Nación 364, 368; Tribiño, Carlos, La Corte Suprema: Competencia y Vías de Acceso (Abeledo Perrot 2010) 36, citing Ceramica San Lorenzo [1985] 307 Fallos 1094, 1096–7. The 1883 CSJN decisión admonishes, “…hay un deber moral para los jueces inferiores en conformar sus decisiones como las misma corte lo tiene decidido en casos análogos…” (there is a moral duty for the lower court judges to conform their decisions to those of this court in analogous cases) (this author's translation).

47 Bidart Campos (n 46) 21, citing Garcia Rams y Herrera [1948] 212 Fallos 251, 253–4.

48 Ibid 21, “the decisions of the Court are assigned the highest importance, and are habitually automatically followed” (this author's translation); Walker (n 42) 72. Not all scholars agree that decisions of the CSJN are in fact binding; see Tribiño (n 46) 36–9.

49 Kapiszewski (n 32) 70.

50 Miguel (n 34) 47–8 (this database works best with an Internet Explorer browser).

51 ibid 48; Infojus is now free (information updated by this author).

52 Castagnola, Andrea and Pérez-Liñán, Anibal, ‘Bolivia: The Rise (and Fall) of Judicial Review’ in Helmke, Gretchen and Ríos-Figueroa, Julio (eds), Courts in Latin America (CUP 2011), 279–80 (this chapter provides an excellent history of the Bolivian judiciary which is much more detailed and interesting than the summary presented in this article).

53 ibid 280–1; see ibid 285–6 for the complex and evolutionary TSJ appointment process.

54 ibid 286–7.

55 ibid 292.

56 ibid 287–8.

57 ibid 293 citing Mitchell A. Seligson, Daniel Moreno Morales, Vivian Schwarz Blum, ‘Democracy Audit: Bolivia 2004 Report’ (LAPOP 2004) 108–9 <> accessed 31 March 2015.

58 Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Bolivia’ (The World Factbook 23 June 2014) <https://> accessed 28 March 2015.

59 Castagnola and Pérez-Liñán (n 52) 296–9.

60 ibid 299–301.

61 Miguel (n 34) 56; see also, ‘Ley del Deslinde Jurisdiccional’  (Ley 73) 29 December 2010 <> accessed 28 March, 2015.

62 ibid 302.

63 Ley del Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional, Law 27, 6 July 2010 and Código Procesal Constitucional, Law 254, 5 July 2012 <> accessed 28 March 2015

64 ‘Institucional’ (Poder Judicial) <> accessed 26 March 2015.

65 ‘Competencias’ (Tribunal Constitucional de Chile) <> accessed 26 March 2015.

66 Pablo Bravo-Hurtado, ‘Hacia los Precedentes en Chile: Reforma Procesal Civil y Fuentes del Derecho’ (2013) 40 (2) Revista Chilena de Derecho 549, 573.

67 ibid 562.

68 ibid 550.

69 Pablo Bravo-Hurtado, ‘Precedente Vinculante versus Independencia Judicial en Chile’ (Reforma Procesal Civil, 1 March 2015) <> accessed 26 March 2015.


Judicial Power in Latin America: a Short Survey

  • Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns


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