Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Madrid: Lunes 9 hasta Viernes 13 | Wednesday Part 1 November 17, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 9:53 am

After another breakfast at the hotel of croissants, cheese, and yogurt and honey, and a quick stop at Starbucks (I, however, managed to resist shelling out another $6 for chai!), we walked to the Palacio de la Justicia, where the Tribunal Supremo – the Spanish equivalent of the Spanish Supreme Court – is located. The building, a monastery converted to a court when the Republic confiscated all the Catholic Church’s property, was gorgeous, of course, but the politics of the system were not so pretty. The good aspect of our confusion was lots of questions for the tour guide, so that we seemed to be a rather “listo” group.

I’ll do my best to explain it. When Spain transitioned to a democracy in 1975, they wrote a new constitution. The country already had an established judicial system, but it was certainly not just. One of the greatest concerns of the new leaders was keeping the three branches of power very separate and evading giving too much power to any few people. Hence, the President (Head only of the Executive branch, which consists of him and the ministers; but who in a rather paradoxical move is chosen from among the representatives in the Congress) rarely attends the ceremonial opening of the judicial session each fall, a separation of powers. And the Tribunal Supremo is divided into 5 sections, each dealing with exclusively civil, penal, social, administrative, or military cases. Any cases dealing with the Constitution go to the Tribunal Constitucional (the Constitutional Court), the other component of the judicial branch. All in all, there are 91 magistrates, which I would equivocate with Supreme Court Justices except with a lot less power, in the Tribunal Supremo, united under a President chosen from among them, who meets with a cabinet composed of the youngest and oldest member from each section. Five judges hear each case, and each judge only works in the court once a week. The magistrates are chosen by the Consejo General del Poder Judicial, composed of lawyers and judges with at least 15 years of experience and “recognized competency”, 12 of which are magistrates, 4 appointed by Congress, and 4 by the Senate.

A disclosure: I realize that I have no right to criticize the Spanish political system. I still don’t know all the details of the system or the history that lead to it, nor am I a Spanish citizen. I’m not proposing that the American system is perfect (although in many cases I do think it is better, but I am biased as an American); regardless, please forgive my criticism, which I will hopefully be able to revise as the year goes on and I learn much more.

Personally, this system appears extremely bureaucratic and complicated to me, excessively so. Spain is a country the size of Texas. There are municipal courts, provincial courts, and courts for each autonomous community, three layers before reaching the Tribunal Supremo (however, certain cases, like those of politicians, go straight to the Tribunal Supremo, always). The constitution is incredibly detailed, 80 pages long in an approximately 4 by 6 inch booklet, plus another 50 pages detailing how the Tribunal Constitucional should work, and full throughout of cross-references to laws augmenting it. This leads to my first question: how do enough cases find enough ambiguity to reach the highest court in the country and occupy 91 judges.

My second question deals with the major divisions. Having a separate court to deal with cases related to the Constitution is strange to me, most likely simply because the main job of the Supreme Court in the United States is to interpret the ambiguities of the constitution, much more vague than that of Spain. What about cases that involve more than just one of the sections (I can’t give examples because I’m still not sure what exactly each one involves)? A firm believer in interdisciplinary approaches, to me such divisions seem at worst counterproductive and at best useless, as something like a law seems incredibly dependent upon the law as a whole. The tour guide said that the divisions permit each judge to specialize in a specific part of the law, which is a reasonable argument but doesn’t solve the terribly bureaucratic aspect of having 91 judges plus another court for the constitution.

Something that bothered me and appeared rather strange due to the emphasis of divisions and separation was the frequency of religious symbolism in the Palacio. The main meeting room was adorned with a larger-than-life-sized statue of a crucified Jesus. On the desk of the incredibly gorgeous office of the president of the court was another Christ statue – and the list goes on. Regarding separation of Church and State, the Spanish constitution guarantees religious freedom, and also says that no one will be obligated to declare their religion, beliefs, or ideology, and the no confession will have the character of the state. The constitution also says that “the public powers will keep in mind the religious beliefs of the Spanish society and maintain the following relations of cooperation with the Catholic Church and the other religions,” with a reference to a law signed in the Vatican that isn’t included in my booklet. However, as far as I can see, the separation of Church and State clause that sparks so much conflict in the United States is absent. Spain has always had a very religious character: the pagan Romans, who later converted to Catholicism; the Adrian Visigoths, who later converted to Catholicism; the Muslim Arabs, who were later conquered by the Catholics; the Church as a power which helped crush the Republic in the Civil War; Franco’s maintenance of Catholicism as the national religion and a very present power throughout his dictatorship…

In any case, the tour was very interesting and the Judicial Palace was filled with beautiful rooms and lovely works of art. Afterward, we had a few hours of free time before meeting to go see the Defensor del Pueblo (just wait until I criticize him!).

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One Response to “Madrid: Lunes 9 hasta Viernes 13 | Wednesday Part 1”

  1. Unique Spain Says:

    Ahhh, the vagraties of Spanish Justice. Where to start…

    Ok, Whilst Spain is roughly the same size as Texas in area its population is higher and it is also a significantly older country. These two factors combine to produce a large number of cases where in different provinces differing judgements have been issued for the same matter. Each of course being able to find precedence in over 2000 years of legal history! This keeps the supreme courts busy enough.

    Its not too different from the USA where you’ve county and state court followed by circuit judges up to the supreme court.

    Just one minor point…. Get out of Starbucks! Try Spanish coffee, its a darn sight cheaper and stronger and you get your shoes covered in the bars litter at the same time!


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