This article addresses two questions regarding the court system in Venezuela, 1780s–1840s, placed within the context of legal reforms throughout Latin America. First, how accurate is the assumption in the historiography that the disruptions of the independence war and the establishment of a republican government prompted Venezuelans to lose confidence in the courts and virtually stop using them? The investigation finds that republican Venezuelans used the courts as much as or more than their colonial counterparts; the number of court cases dropped during periods of intense violence but then quickly rebounded. Second, did the post-independence judicial system effectively integrate liberal legislative reforms into courtroom standards and practices? The study shows that, while republican court reform failed in some measures, it also succeeded in the following four areas: The courts changed the standards of evidence so that they gave clear preference to the empirical observations of the litigants and witnesses rather than their personal reputations; they reorganized court jurisdictions into an unambiguous hierarchy; they increased transparency; and they adopted constitutionally defined civil liberties of defendants in a manner that equates with modern “due process.” The article contextualizes these changes within legal reforms throughout the Atlantic world that, beginning in the eighteenth century, sought to increase state centralization through establishing the dominance of state legislation over other norms of justice (religious law, tradition, and custom) and creating clear bureaucratic hierarchies. Venezuela's republican government pursued goals previously aspired to by the colonial government, but accelerated them as it promoted legal equality and rational empiricism.
Research Article|August 01 2010
Reuben Zahler; Liberal Justice: Judicial Reform in Venezuela's Courts, 1786–1850. Hispanic American Historical Review 1 August 2010; 90 (3): 489–522. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182168-2010-004
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