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Cablegate: Panama: New Supreme Court Chief Justice Receives

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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHZP #0074/01 0251455
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 251455Z JAN 08
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1670
INFO RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC
RHMFISS/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHINGTON DC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RUCNFB/FBI WASHINGTON DC
RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
RHEFHLC/HOMELAND SECURITY CENTER WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000074

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/24/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL KCRM PHUM EAID ECON PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA: NEW SUPREME COURT CHIEF JUSTICE RECEIVES
AMBASSASDOR

Classified By: Ambassador William A. Eaton. Reason: 1.4(d).

-------
Summary
-------

1. (SBU) Recognizing that Panama's judiciary has "a
corruption problem" and believing that he has limited
powers to sway the opinion of the court's other
magistrates, newly installed Supreme Court President Harley
Mitchell told Ambassador on January 14 that he planned to
use his authority and bully pulpit to lay out a vision to
make the justice system more open and transparent.
Mitchell asserted that he was already implementing
elements of his vision and testing his power by personally
asking the magistrates to be more accountable and to report
on cases that have been pending in their hands for long
periods of time. Where necessary, Mitchell said he
intended to use the clout of public opinion to encourage
fellow Supreme Court justices to render opinions on cases
that have been pending for years. During the meeting, the
Chief Justice identified structural weaknesses within the
legal system. In response, he is taking a multi-faceted
approach to improving the justice system. Mitchell comes
across as a man with a plan to shake up and improve
operations within the Court. Mitchell was elected in 2008
with six "yes" votes and three abstentions from the nine
members of the Supreme Court. End Summary.

------------------------------------
Problems Throughout the Court System
------------------------------------

3. (SBU) Mitchell jumped right into laying out his plans
for his presidency. Recognizing that the judiciary had a
corruption problem, Mitchell identified several structural
weaknesses, including:

-- Offices that exist in name only: Several offices and
commissions that were on the court,s organizational chart
had only minimal personnel and resources, Mitchell noted.
For example, the Penitentiary Commission scheduled court
appearances, but had only one staff person for the entire
country, Mitchell explained, so work-arounds to schedule
appearances were common. Concerned by allegations that
certain judges always decided cases in favor of a
particular group or individual, Mitchell said he asked his
staff for statistics on the rulings of different judges,
only to learn that the Office of Statistics only had three
staff and did not track this type of information.

-- Minimal Personnel and Resources Attached to the Office
of the Presidency: The President of the Supreme Court
rotated yearly, Mitchell noted, and each magistrate was
permanently assigned to a particular jurisdictional chamber
(sala) (e.g., civil, criminal, constitutional) within the
Supreme Court. Previous presidents borrowed personnel from
these chambers when they became Chief Justice. Mitchell
attributed the number of pending actions within his office,
some dating back five years, to a lack of continuity and
inadequate staffing.

-- Unresolved court cases that date back many years:
Mitchell said he had found a Supreme Court case that went
back to 1981 -- 26 years -- without resolution. He
personally intervened in the case, ruling in favor of an
86-year woman who had lost an eye due to negligence at a
Social Security Hospital. While this might be an extreme
case, Mitchell said it was not uncommon for cases to remain
in the Supreme Court for several years.

-- An overwhelmed court system: Mitchell said that he had
recently visited a prison in Panama and spoke to a detainee
who had been there for 54 months without charges. According
to Mitchell, 51 percent of the people in jail were still
waiting their trials. He noted that for homicide cases, the
court system was so backlogged that if charges were filed
now, trial dates were scheduled beginning in September
2009.

---------------------------

Mitchell,s Outreach Program
---------------------------

4. (SBU) Since his election, Mitchell said he had placed
great emphasis on meeting with representatives from
different sectors, including: the executive and judiciary,
the private sector, NGOs, business associations, and labor.
He said he had also met with members of the diplomatic and
donor communities. He said that he wanted to learn first
hand the issues and concerns that these various groups had
concerning the justice sector.

---------------
Mitchell,s Plan
---------------

5. (SBU) Mitchell said he was taking a multi-faceted
approach to improving the justice system:

-- Digitization: Mitchell said he would spearhead efforts
to digitize court documents, including those cases where
rulings had already been handed down so that judges could
readily refer to past cases. He said that digitizing cases
at the Supreme Court level would allow justices to
simultaneously review a particular case rather than have it
move from one magistrate to another.

-- Enhancing transparency by using the web: Providing a
web site where people could access a particular case to
learn its status, which magistrate had it, and how long a
magistrate has had it would enhance transparency, Mitchell
asserted. Mitchell said this measure would serve as an
incentive for judges to rule more quickly on a case.

-- Lobbying for increased funding: He said that he had
already met with the Minister of Economy and Finance (MEF),
who was supportive of his efforts to modernize the court
system and expedite court cases and was generally receptive
to an increased budget request.

-- Lobbying the National Assembly: Mitchell said he would
lobby the legislature to change laws to improve the
performance of the justice system. He said that he was not
adverse to directly presenting proposed legislation to the
National Assembly, something that previous presidents had
seldom done but of which he intended to make more use.

-- Securing International Assistance: The Supreme Court
President said he would seek international assistance from
different countries and MDBs to help implement his plans,
citing specifically the U.S., the EU, Spain, and Brazil.
Ambassador offered to help coordinate/host some of these
meetings, an offer for which Mitchell was appreciative.
Ambassador said that as Mitchell's plans developed, the
U.S. remained interested in assisting where it could and

urged Mitchell to call on the U.S. as needs arose.

-------
Comment
-------

6. (C) Supreme Court Justice Adan Arjona (protect) told DCM
that soon after Mitchell took office, the Chief Justice
organized a meeting with five other justices (Esmeralda
Troitino, Adan Arjona, Victor Benavides, Oyden Ortega,
Jeronimo Mejia) to discuss corruption. The three that were
not invited included Anibal Salas, Alberto Cigaurrista, and
Winston Spadafora. Of these Cigaurrista has been linked to
illegal activities, and Spadafora had his U.S. visa revoked
for corruption in late 2005. Arjona revealed that the six
judges agreed to develop a list of corrupt judges and to work
together to fire them. If this report is truthful, the
meeting would indicate that Mitchell is serious about reform
and that he has the support he needs within the Supreme
Court.

7. (SBU) Mitchell laid out an ambitious vision that will
require support from all sectors. While supportive now,
stakeholders will ultimately be looking for results. To
implement his vision, Mitchell will need an operations
group to oversee and implement the various aspects of his

plan. The ability to implement successfully what he has
planned will define his effectiveness as Chief Justice.

8. (SBU) Feedback that Post has received from people that
have met with Mitchell has been uniformly positive. The
Attorney General Ana Matilda Gomez noted recently that
Mitchell's outreach had led to better coordination between
her office and the court, something that she asserted had
not taken place under the last president. First VP and FM
told Ambassador he was surprised and pleased by Mitchell,s
invitation to discuss specific concerns about the judiciary
that adversely affected foreign investment; "That never
happened before." American and Panamanian business leaders
have also been favorably impressed by Mitchell,s stance on
boosting the Court,s transparency and effectiveness.
EATON

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