Venezuela congress holds last session to name judges; opposition pledges institutional change

Venezuela's ruling socialist party is set to rush through a series of appointments before the opposition takes over congress next month with promises to revive what it calls a moribund institution.

The legislature was expected to name 12 Supreme Court justices Thursday during a final session, filling vacancies left by a group of judges who requested early retirement.

That move, if not countered, could extend the years of government control over the court, which has the power to overrule acts of the new congress.

The opposition won a landslide victory in Sunday's legislative election and will take control of the legislature in January, creating a divided government for the first time since late President Hugo Chavez launched his socialist revolution here in 1998.

The new congress will be able to implement even laws President Nicolas Maduro rejects. But the Supreme Court will still be able to overturn legislation it finds unconstitutional, making the 32 justices key in deciding how much power the National Assembly will be able to wield.

All justices serve 12 year terms, so the resignations extend the time pro-government judges will be in place if they are not impeached.

Venezuela's congress, dominated for 15 years by the ruling party, has met infrequently to rubber-stamp the president's agenda.

Last month, lawmakers approved the president's budget proposal with no debate, as they have for years. The detailed accountability reports and economic figures the body is supposed to receive annually have morphed into documents that read more like celebratory press releases, or have stopped coming in altogether.

While lawmakers have sometimes promised to investigate major scandals, like a 2013 prison riot in which dozens of inmates were shot to death, they rarely present conclusions. And reporters are not allowed near the assembly floor, but are instead must watch the proceedings on television.

That televised view drew derision in 2013 when the camera averted its gaze from a fight on the assembly floor that sent high-profile opposition leader Maria Corina Macahado to the hospital. The channel broadcast a shot of the ceiling instead.

At other times, it has filmed lawmakers dancing around the chamber to drums to celebrate the country's vibrant culture, or singing revolutionary songs.

The opposition has promised to restore the legislature's potency and transparency.

Opposition members, who have had so little access to national media that they have relied on a YouTube channel to get their announcements out, have been eagerly outlining their plans to use the National Assembly's national television channel. They also insist they'll demand far more economic data from state intuitions.

Henry Ramos Allup, who leads the large opposition party Democratic Action, said any last-minute attempts to neuter the legislature will be undone as soon as the new lawmakers are seated. The opposition will have the power to remove Supreme Court justices it finds guilty of misconduct.

"These are acts of anger that are null and void," he told the television station Globovision. "Whatever they do, it's reversible."


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