Angie Vega (2018)
Colombia is a country located in the southwestern part of South America. The country is ecologically diverse, with Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, Amazon rainforests, and tropical grasslands. It is considered a "megadiverse country" that ranks as the first country in the world for diversity of bird species.
As a Civil Law country, Colombia’s legal system is mainly based on codes and laws rather than jurisprudence. One of the main characteristics of civil law countries is that their legal system does not recognize the jurisprudence as part of their legal bodies, which means that court’s decisions are only binding for the parties involved rather than for everyone. Judicial decisions are applied case by case and serve as a reference for other judges. However, in Colombia, as well as in some other civil law countries, the high courts’ decisions have gained more power and their scope is not limited as it was previously. In certain occasions, especially in high profile cases where the matters are controversial, a court’s interpretation of the law is just as important as the written law itself.
The Colombian National Constitution of 1991 states in Article 1 that “Colombia is a social state of law, organized in the form of a unitary, decentralized republic, with autonomy of its territorial entities, democratic, participatory and pluralist." This means that the central government has the power to make the most important political decisions. Colombia only has a legislative authority, which is responsible for making the laws for the entire territory. The country is divided in territorial entities called departments (equivalent to states in the U.S.) that are separated into districts and local municipalities. These entities do not have legislative or judicial authority. However, as the executive branch of Colombia is administratively decentralized, there are representatives in the departmental, district, and municipal department levels. The representatives in these three levels have certain limited powers that are independent from the central authority.
The political power is distributed in three branches. These branches, according to Article 113 of the Constitution, are the executive branch, legislative branch, and judicial branch. They all have independent roles, but are “designed to work harmoniously for the realization of the nation’s goals.”
The executive branch is managed by the President. Governors, mayors, and ministries report to their respective leaders. For instance, mayors report to the respective governor and the president. Governors report to the president. (Constitución Política de Colombia, Art 115. (1991)).
The Legislative branch’s duty is to amend the constitution, make laws, and exercise political control over the government and the administration. Congress is the body in charge of the legislative function and it is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. (Constitución Política de Colombia. Art. 114. (1991)).
The Judicial branch administers justice. The judicial branch in Colombia has four higher courts, which are the last instance for the three most important jurisdictions: ordinary, administrative and constitutional. (Constitución Política de Colombia. Art. 116. (1991)).
The higher courts of the judicial branch are:
- The Supreme Court of Justice: the highest court of the ordinary jurisdiction that hears claims against the president and investigates the members of congress (Constitución Política de Colombia. arts. 234-235. 1991)
- The Constitutional Court: decides on constitutional claims and studies the constitutionality of the laws (Constitución Política de Colombia. Arts 239-241. 1991)
- The Superior Council of the Judiciary: investigates the conduct of the judicial officials (Constitución Política de Colombia. Art 257. 1991)
- The State Council: the highest body of the administrative jurisdiction. It advises the government on administrative matters. (Constitución Política de Colombia. Arts 236-238 1991)
The Constitutional Court must decide among others on claims that involve controversial matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage, adoption, and now bullfighting as part of its constitutional duty. Congress’ main duty is to “make the laws of the Nation," but it has shown itself reluctant to rule when it comes to legislating on the current most controversial topics. As a result of this passivity, the Constitutional Court has had to rule in the absence of Congress in these crucial matters through judicial decisions. This gives the Colombian court’s decisions a similar scope to the high court decisions in common law countries.