Constitutions, Crises and Courage
By John I. Laun
June 27, 2008
On June 26 Colombia’s Supreme Court issued a sentence finding in effect that the government of President Alvaro Uribe had bribed Congresswoman Yidis Medina to vote in a Congressional committee in favor of Uribe’s re-election. Her vote was needed in order to approve the proposed constitutional change. In the current Colombian context the decision of the Supreme Court was a real demonstration of courage. President Uribe has sought to expand the powers of the Presidency greatly, at the cost of the separation of judicial, legislative and executive power set forth in the Colombian Constitution. His administration has featured close ties of high government officials, including his cousin and close friend Senator Mario Uribe, with paramilitary forces. According to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (Comite Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos), 33 members of the Colombian Congress are now imprisoned for their ties to the illegal paramilitaries, while 60 more are under investigation for such ties. Many of these are of parties close to the President.
President Uribe several weeks ago tried to influence the Supreme Court by making a phone call to a magistrate of the Court to whom evidence supposedly had been conveyed which identified Uribe in a negative light. Before that, in his first term, he had tried to eliminate the Constitutional Court, created by the 1991 Constitution, which has acted as a brake on Presidential power. He was unsuccessful. Informed of the Supreme Court’s decision on June 26, the President immediately called the press to condemn the decision and to propose that Congress approve a referendum to repeat or ratify Uribe’s victory in the 2006 election.
What is obvious here is the attempt to use the powers of the Presidency to consolidate even more power in that office, emasculating the courts. President Uribe, buoyed by surveys that show he has an 84% approval rating, is like another President in this Hemisphere, playing the role of the “decider” whose word is law. The threat to constitutional government, and in fact legitimacy of the government, could hardly be more serious.
The Colombia Support has continuously opposed Plan Colombia and the U.S. aid component of the Plan. But at our National Meeting last month we favored aid to the Colombian court system and the office of the Attorney General (Fiscal General), if that aid could be allocated to the investigation of crimes of the paramilitaries and of agents of the Colombian state and prosecution of those responsible for these crimes. I doubt that any effective allocation of these funds for the specified purposes could be made during the Uribe Administration in Colombia and the Bush Administration in the United States. But we should express our support for the determination of the Colombian Supreme Court to investigate crimes of state and to bring to justice those implicated in these crimes. And we should also support the work of Attorney General Mario Iguaran, who has directed substantial resources to investigation and prosecution of paramilitary leaders and their crimes.
The very existence of constitutional government is at stake in Colombia. But remarkably, much the same is true in the United States. President Bush, our “decider”, has concluded that executive privilege covers virtually all of his determinations as President; Congress in his view has no real oversight role. Karl Rove, “Scooter” Libby, and other Presidential or Vice Presidential advisors are immune from Congressional oversight. Bush can establish by so-called “signing statements” that a law passed by Congress will be enforced not according to its terms, but as he decides to interpret it. These statements have no constitutional basis; we should be dumbfounded that this foolishness is not roundly ridiculed and reproached by Congress and the Courts. And how is it that John Yoo can misread the Constitution and ignore this country’s commitment to international treaties on human rights in his eagerness to enshrine an imperial Presidency in this country? As one who studied constitutional law at Stanford Law School under Professor Gerald Gunther, I wonder what crazy misconceptions Professor Yoo’s students at the University of California Law School at Berkeley may take from his classes. Torture is morally wrong and contrary to the Geneva Conventions and to develop a rationale under which it is acceptable is the height of folly. It is wrong for our country and wrong for the world.
Colombia may have an advantage on us as far as the respective Supreme Courts are concerned. While the Colombian Supreme Court withstands Presidential pressure and seeks to protect the Constitution, a majority on our Supreme Court has undermined our privacy and curtailed freedom in a number of ways. And we shrug our shoulders as Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Scalia and the Court majority in Bush v. Gore abandon the states rights position they had developed over several years so that the Republican candidate, Bush, having received 500,000 fewer votes than Gore, could become President. Now we see Justice Scalia trying to divine what the Founding Fathers wanted when this country was much different over 200 years ago; this exercise is, in a word, foolish. Yet we hear serious debate about it.
It is, in short, no less important for us than it is for Colombians to be concerned about protecting our Constitution. Presidential usurpation of power is a phenomenon we both share. Hopefully sensible people in both countries will energetically support the defenders of these two quite remarkable Constitutions.
Colombia Support Network
P.O. Box 1505
Madison, WI 53701-1505
phone: (608) 257-8753
fax: (608) 255-6621