The judicial system comprises a Constitutional Court, Supreme Court of Justice, Council of State, the Higher Judiciary Council, and superior and municipal courts. The Supreme Court in Bogotá is composed of 24 magistrates selected for lifetime terms by justices already in office. The Supreme Court reviews state and municipality laws, frames bills to be submitted to Congress, and proposes reforms. It acts as an advisory board to the government and can veto decrees. It has original jurisdiction in impeachment trials and constitutional interpretation and appellate jurisdiction in ordinary judicial matters. The court is divided into four chambers—civil cassation, criminal cassation, labor cassation, and constitutional procedure.
There is a superior court of three or more judges in each of the judicial districts and a number of municipal courts. A judge of minors in the capital of each department has jurisdiction throughout the department. There are also special labor courts. In criminal cases, the judge chooses a five-member jury; jury duty is obligatory. There is no capital punishment; the maximum penalty for crimes is 20 years in prison. Although the right of habeas corpus is guaranteed by the constitution, suspects in security cases have been detained incommunicado for 10 days or longer.
The 1991 constitution extensively revised the judicial system. It established an independent prosecution system and a national people's defender office to investigate human rights cases. Traditional courts on Indian reservations were validated. A Constitutional Court reviews the constitutionality of proposed legislation.
The judiciary is independent both in theory and in practice from the executive and legislative branches. In 1991, the government set up five regional jurisdictions to handle narcotics, terrorism, and police corruption cases in which anonymous judges and prosecutors handle the major trials of narcotics terrorists. The government implemented significant reforms to the system of regional jurisdiction in 1999.
The procedures in the new regional courts have raised concerns over defendants' rights. In 1993, the constitutional court invalidated provisions of the regional court law under which detainees could be held without right to bail.
Criminal defendants have a right to an attorney, although indigents have difficulties in obtaining effective counsel. In some cases, inability to post bail and backlogs in processing result in the accused serving the applicable sentence for the crime charged before the case goes to trial.