Latin America Needs Better Judges

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Latin America’s judiciaries are engulfed in corruption scandals. In Colombia a former Supreme Court member was arrested on charges of corruption and bribery. In Peru multiple judges stand accused of trading favorable rulings and shortened sentences for money and perks. In Guatemala, lawyers and justices face charges of rigging Supreme Court appointments. And in Mexico the attorney general's office fired one of its own for delving too deep into alleged bribes to the former head of the national oil company Pemex, a close confidant of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

These acts, more than similar crimes by dirty politicians, undermine the region’s fragile rule of law, revealing deep-seated corruption among those responsible for holding others to account. They show that the widespread legal reforms of the last two decades, while necessary, weren’t enough. The next essential step is professionalizing the judiciary itself.

Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and others have overhauled their legal systems, introducing oral trials, arbitration and mediation alternatives, and strengthening due process and the presumption of innocence. As part of larger shifts from inquisitorial to adversarial systems, these efforts have begun to make justice more transparent, effective and fair.

Many Latin American countries have also passed specific anticorruption measures. Brazil criminalized bid-rigging, bribery and fraud in public procurement. Argentina outlawed nepotism, and along with Peru and Colombia upped the penalties for corporate bribery. Mexico created a new national anti-corruption system, explicitly outlawing bribes, embezzlement, and the failure to disclose conflicts of interest, and creating a dedicated prosecutor to go after perpetrators.

Legislators also gave prosecutors new corruption-fighting tools. Brazil’s successful Lava Jato (Carwash) investigations, leading to more than 200 convictions of politicians and business leaders for bribery and kickbacks, including former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, have hinged on plea bargaining, introduced to the fight against organized crime by a 2013 law. Nearly a dozen nations in the region claim similar statutes that enable court officials to ease sentences in exchange for information on accomplices and higher-ups.

Yet as the ongoing wave of scandals attests, beyond new laws Latin American nations need judges and lawyers able and willing to wield them. This in turn requires a professional legal bureaucracy. Although harder to conjure than legislation, a qualified civil service is possible to build.

Look, for instance, at Chile and Brazil.

Chile has a long history of meritocratic public hiring, drawing on credentials and examinations rather than party links. Attesting to the respect afforded their profession, judges, like other bureaucrats, often come from well-heeled families and elite schools. In the wake of Chile's own corruption scandals, one involving former president Michelle Bachelet's son and daughter-in-law, the government expanded efforts to inculcate legal impartiality and professionalism beyond just the courtroom, introducing civic and ethics education to elementary schools.

Brazil’s merit-based system for choosing most judges and prosecutors was inscribed in its 1988 Constitution. Over the last 30 years its judicial core has evolved, the politically appointed judges of the past retiring and their replacements rising up through the new technocratic process. Judge Sergio Moro of Lava Jato fame is but one of these new professionals, respected and well remunerated for their technical acumen and political autonomy.

Throughout the region citizen anger over corruption is growing. Promises to take on widespread graft helped to catapult Mexico’s president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to a historic victory. Corruption preoccupied Colombians heading to polls last spring, and ranks high among voter concerns in Brazil’s upcoming presidential race. In Peru it brought down the previous president and threatens the current head of state, Martin Vizcarra, if he can’t harness the momentum to his cause through a pending referendum.

Yet what Latin American leaders must now do is to change career incentives, ensuring that judicial robes aren’t bought but earned, and that merit trumps connections. They need to create respected and rewarding professional paths, enticing the talented and ambitious to the fight against corruption rather than succumb to its temptations.

Brazil and Chile show that changing the makeup of the justice system is possible. But a process that takes a generation will surely test the patience of Latin America's voters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shannon O'Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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