A Superior Court’s Tuesday decision to order the reinstatement of former Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro in 48 hours has left Colombia with an unprecedented judicial quagmire, leaving citizens, journalists, and experts searching for answers.
“Bogota’s citizens could not be more confused,” began Semana magazine’s article after Tuesday night’s announcement that President Juan Manuel Santos had a 48 hour deadline to return the formerly dismissed Petro to the capital’s mayorship.
The democratically elected Petro was ordered removed from office by Colombia’s inspector general, Alejandro Ordoñez, in December of 2013 over “irregularities” while trying to convert Bogota’s garbage collection system from private to public contracts in 2012. The Inspector General’s Office hoped to ban Petro from serving public office for the next 15 years.
Over the course of five months, the inspector general, Colombia’s State Council, and President Santos have all upheld the former mayor’s punishment.
In what can only be described as a David and Goliath story however, Tuesday’s decision from Bogota’s Superior Court — a district appellate court — that ordered the reinstatement of Petro by the president, sent Colombia’s capital city into an unprecedented judicial puzzle.
This court accepted a “tutela” or writ of protection submitted by Petro’s lawyers, which agreed with the “precautionary measures” that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered in March asserting that “the mayor is not able to be thrown out of office while the process of [investigating his alleged wrong doing] is carried out,” according to Semana.
The More Courts the Merrier
Here, the all too familiar question of which court has ultimate authority rises once again.
The Superior Court of Bogota is a district court, of which there are 10 in total in the country, according to Colombia’s Judicial Branch website.
These Superior Courts function as appellate courts, and if their rulings are questioned or challenged, then the Supreme Court of Justice — one of Colombia’s four high courts — would decide the case. In this situation, according to Semana, President Santos is the only one who likely has the power to challenge the Superior Court’s decision, though constitutionalist lawyer German Calderon asserts that “the inspector general too has the possibility of making a challenge.”
Either way, if Santos decides to go against his two-week-old vow to reinstate Petro if a court ordered him to do so, and challenge this new ruling, Colombia’s Supreme Court would have the final word.
That final word however would only negate the “tutela” that Petro put forth, and not address the obligatory nature of precautionary measures ordered by international organizations such as the IACHR nor if Inspector General Ordoñez’s punishment was appropriate.
Here the knot becomes bigger because Colombia’s State Council — another one of the country’s four high courts — is expected to make a ruling this week on those very left over issues: the “precautionary measures” and the political punishment. While national media expects this decision to be in Petro’s favor, the State Council was responsible for denying 300 of the former mayor’s original “tutelas.”
Santos sided with the State Council’s March 18 ruling to strike down all of Petro’s appeals, after the IACHR had decreed it’s precautionary measures.
The president ignored the IACHR once, but is he prepared to do so again when a Colombian court sides with the international commission?
Adding to the courts who wish to contribute to the dialogue, the Constitutional Court — the third of Colombia’s four high courts — has stated that if a case concerning IACHR’s precautionary measures were to come in front of their court, they would support the international body.
The More Mayors the Merrier
Adding to the chaos, depending on the head of state’s next move, in one week, Colombia’s largest city will potentially see three mayors: President Santos’ first appointee, former Labor Minister Rafael Pardo serving Monday morning after three weeks in office; his second appointee, Maria Mercedes Maldonado of Petro’s political party serving for all of one day; and his last choice, the former mayor himself, former M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro, whose dismissal the president signed off on personally.
Only Petro was elected democratically for the job in 2011.
Here’s where the new problem comes in: according to the law, 55 days after the initial dismissal of the elected official, a special election must be held. If Petro is reinstated in the next 48 hours as decreed, then no such election will happen.
However, a referendum amongst citizens of Bogota was scheduled by the Electoral Registry for the beginning of April to determine democratically if Petro should be expelled from his office or not. This process was then halted when the State Council and president decided to approve his dismissal without a single ballot being cast.
Now that it looks as though Petro will return to his post, the Electoral Registry will have to debate organizing a new referendum to determine if Petro should continue as mayor…again. It would take around 30 days to arrange such a vote, according to Carlos Sanchez of the Electoral Registry. Then, a simple majority would be enough to sack the politician democratically, as long as at least 1,234,000 people show up to vote.
If Petro is dismissed by referendum, then a special election must be held to elect a mayor for Bogota by the end of July.
This voting schedule seems particular daunting, considering that Colombia’s first round of presidential elections will kick off on May 25, and a second round — if needed — would occur on June 15.
“This is something that has never been seen before in the history of the capital,” wrote Semana magazine, “the political and judicial chaos is unprecedented.”
And it all began with trash collection.
- Bogotá y el mayor caos jurídico y político de su historia (Semana)
- Colombia’s Judicial Branch Explained (Colombia Judicial Branch)
- Así fue la novela jurídica de la restitución de Petro (El Espectador)