By CRISTINA DEL MAR QUILES, Todas and Centro de Periodismo Investigativo
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — When Andrea Ruiz Costas’ femicide was confirmed and it was known that she had gone to court several times looking for help without getting the aid she needed, Chief Justice Maite Oronoz Rodríguez did not take long to express herself publicly in writing.
In statements circulated to the press on May 1, 2021, she said she was “absolutely devastated.”
She called an emergency meeting with the judges of the 13 judicial regions to evaluate the handling of gender violence cases that come before the courts.
She announced the appointment of a committee to evaluate all the information, documents and recordings of the different hearings that were held in Andrea Ruiz Costas’ case.
And she concluded by saying: “We will assume our responsibility without excuses, we will be accountable, and we will do everything that is warranted. You have my word.”
As chief justice, Oronoz has been quick to respond to demands for diversity and attention to gender issues in the courts. Under her tenure, she expanded the Specialized Courtrooms for Domestic Violence Cases Project, established in 2007 —now eight of the 13 judicial regions have these specialized courts— and the model was expanded to include addressing sexual violence cases. Dozens of workshops on gender perspectives have been offered for the judiciary, and petitions that previously could only be made in person, such as protection orders, can now be done electronically.
Moreover, she has been vocal about her solidarity with gender-based violence victims and their families.
Despite this, as chief justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, she faces the challenge of bringing the judicial branch closer to survivors of violence and addressing demands for transparency and accountability.
In her office in Puerta de Tierra, a San Juan neighborhood, Oronoz Rodríguez answered questions from the Center for Investigative Journalism’s (CPI, in Spanish) Gender Investigative Unit and specialized media outlet Todas.
Do you agree with the generalized perception that there is a historical resistance on the part of the Puerto Rico judiciary to accountability?
I believe that there’s resistance from all the judicial branches around the world and from all government entities to be held accountable. As for the judicial branch, it seems to me that, unlike the legislative and executive powers, the work of the judge has always been very private. In the Supreme Court, you are writing in your office, and you never see the faces of the parties involved.
In the Court of Appeals, in Puerto Rico, there aren’t many oral hearings, and you never have that direct contact. Superior Court hearing rooms, until recently —even though they are public processes and people can go in— there really hasn’t been publicity of the process until very recently, with the initiative to transmit the hearings virtually.
Besides that, judges don’t tend to make public statements. It’s a public job, but it’s quite distanced from the public it serves. So I think that has historically been the perception of the different courts, not just the ones in Puerto Rico. And I know this because I listen and share views with my counterparts in other countries, and we tend to have these same conversations.
On the issue of gender-based violence, do you agree with claims about systemic failures —expressed especially by lawyers who defend survivors of domestic violence— regarding the handling of these cases?
Of course there are systemic flaws, and no matter how much we dedicate 100 percent of our time to this —which, obviously, is not realistic— the system will never be perfect, and whoever says that there are no flaws is not being honest with themselves and certainly not with the public. Of course there are flaws in a system led, executed, and done by human beings, and we’re imperfect, and it’s a large organization—these are complicated processes… You’re working with the most traumatic and vulnerable processes, with the most vulnerable people, so it’s not easy. It’s an extremely complex process, and I believe that I’ve been honest with myself and with the public in this regard, and I have openly said that we must not only do self-reflection exercises but also allow other institutions to evaluate us. And that, as I will tell you about today, is in process, with an aim to improve as much as possible. But, of course, we have flaws. Many.
[When specifying these failures, Oronoz Rodríguez mentioned that many women survivors of domestic violence do not turn to the court for help. This is one of the findings of the Courts Administration’s Working Group on Feminicide Cases that she appointed to evaluate the intervention of the courts in femicide between January 2020 and July 2021. Of 24 intimate feminicides, the court intervened in only seven cases before the murder, said the report.
This isn’t new. For decades, advocates for domestic violence survivors’ rights have stressed how many avoid the process, are unaware of it or, once they start it, give up because it is exhausting or overwhelming.
The same study also identifies the failures of judges and prosecutors in handling some cases. For example, in one case, a judge acknowledges the danger of an aggressor, but speaks to the victim in a scolding tone rather than out of concern for her safety, about the “situation to which you are exposed, an unhealthy relationship. You’re exposing yourself to a tragedy.”
In another case, a prosecutor “pardons” an abuser for a protection order violation and dismisses him, saying that he would file charges “if other violations happen in the future.”
In another case, a petitioner for a protection order testified to having been a victim of sexual assault without the judge presiding over the hearing and referring the aggressor to the police to investigate whether charges were called for. It was also noted that a victim informed the court of her new address, and this was recorded in the case file without any precautions being taken to maintain its confidentiality.]
When we speak with legal advocates, they tell us they have previously identified some strategies so that victims can obtain protection orders or that cause is determined in the case of criminal proceedings. For example, explicitly saying “I fear for my life” or “I am afraid,” using keywords and behaving in a certain way. It seems that the one who doesn’t have the chance to be accompanied by a legal advocate is at the mercy of the system, as if she had to play a game in which she doesn’t necessarily know the existing rules, but she doesn’t have to know them. Why does it seem like the process has to be like this?
Even for civil cases, cases that have nothing to do with gender-based violence or sexual assault, going to court is intimidating. Presenting yourself before a judge, a judge is intimidating. So it’s a difficult process in Puerto Rico and in other jurisdictions.
And if, on top of that, you must talk about the person that you have been living with, the person who is supposed to be protecting you, could be the father, the mother of your children, the only provider, and you have to offer some very intimate details, people tend to shorten the versions, to omit data. If you’re talking about something more serious, a sexual assault, the way the brain processes it, there will be details that you will not talk about at that moment.
Part of the training that we have been giving to judges has to do with how you seek information. The best way is by asking questions. How you ask questions that lead you to clarify the truth that, at the end of the day, is what the judge’s role is.
But I must pause here. Remember that there are different visions of what the role of a judge is, and we’re taught in law school that judges are impartial and that one is there to listen and that, when you ask questions, and depending on how you direct the questions, it could be understood or conceived that you are favoring one side or the other, or inciting them to divulge information to reach a specific result. I mention it merely because there are different schools of thought and people conceive their role as a judge in a very different way, from the very first approach to the facts.
My opinion —from what I’ve read and from what I’ve learned in Puerto Rico and in other jurisdictions from experts on the subject, sociologists, psychologists, and judges who have dedicated themselves for many years to seeing and dealing with cases of gender violence— is that you have to ask, not necessarily because someone must be punished. If you don’t ask, you have a victim who won’t give you the necessary details.
If your role is to adjudicate if this person needs a protection order because their life is in danger, you must know if their life is in danger. And in the absence of a lawyer, and in the absence sometimes of an intermediary, the role of the judge must be to investigate the truth, and you have to ask questions. And we have had some experiences in seminars in which a question that seemed leading is what gives you the context—it’s what makes an answer come up and makes you realize that the person is in imminent danger of death.
We know that when a woman has to go to court, many things have already happened. Human rights advocates say that by the time she has to go to court, it’s already too late. But the system exists for a reason, and even when there are intermediaries, even when there are proactive judges who ask questions, the process is exhausting and often makes them regret it—or, when they finish it, it’s at a great emotional, physical, and economic cost. And what I’ve gotten from survivors I’ve talked to is that it seems like the system is designed to punish them rather than the aggressor, even though they have a support system. Does it have to be this way?
We did an evaluation that took several years and revealed the findings to a group of collaborating institutions. You have people who go to court and believe that the process is adequate, according to the report, with all the gray areas that it may have. But considering what came up from the report, the percentage of satisfaction with the process is high. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. And without a doubt, one of the findings was precisely what you’re mentioning.
So how do you [as a judge] achieve that fine balance of respecting everyone’s constitutional rights and making the process easier for the victim? Not having [the victim], for example, tell a police officer your situation once, repeat it to a prosecutor, say it again in a Rule 6 proceeding [arrest cause determination hearing], repeat it…
Even if the process is perfect, that victim has gone to court at least four or five times already. And not to mention the economic burden that it has on a person who, if she is a working woman, had to ask for days off from work; if she has children, arrange for childcare; economic loss; and the physical and mental exhaustion of being in a process that what you want is for it to end.
So one of the questions that came up with the group that works with victims is how do we make that process simpler? It’s a complex problem, like everything else, because each case is different. So, sometimes, the delay is due to the prosecution or the police. Sometimes us, the Court, or now with the pandemic you’re going to have processes that have been delayed. The victim herself, as you mention many times, wants to quit, not only because the process is tedious, but because she may be overwhelmed and mentally burdened.
So there are multiple reasons, and that’s why it’s hard to create mechanisms to improve something that has so many reasons for being.
Are there mechanisms that you’ve been able to implement to alleviate what appears to be the nature of the process?
A single form was created for protection orders. A virtual municipal courtroom was created precisely to prevent the victim from not only having to go to court, but also exposing themselves to the aggressor. They can make those calls by video conference from the shelter. With the staggering calendars, the waiting hours have been minimized and the term in which the protection order is granted has been cut back. So yes, work has been done and still, in the period of a year, work has been done.
We signed a court-watching collaboration agreement with the Health and Justice Center, in which external entities are trained to then go to criminal proceedings of gender violence; from there, make observations, collect data, and make recommendations to the courts on how they can improve the processes in those cases. That is a court-watching program from an institution outside the judiciary.
[The Chief Justice also discussed Andrea Ruiz Costas’ experiences in court. A month before her disappearance, Ruiz Costas requested a protection order, but Judge Sonia Nieves Cordero did not grant it and she chose to summon her for the following week, together with her aggressor. In her next appearance, Ruiz Costas went there to denounce him criminally. That time, a second judge, Ingrid Alvarado Rodríguez, did not believe her either, which was confirmed in leaked audio of that interaction.
Discouraged by the results, she went to court a third time, convinced that she didn’t want to move forward with pursuing the protection order. Her words before Judge Nieves Cordero were “I don’t want to continue with the case. I don’t want to deal with this anymore.”
On May 4, 2021, five days after Ruiz Costas was murdered, the courts’ administrative director, Sigfrido Steidel, ordered an investigation.
“The standard of legal evidence required to initiate a disciplinary procedure before the Judicial Disciplinary Commission against judges Nieves Cordero and Alvarado Rodríguez within the parameters applicable to this course of action is not met,” concluded the investigation whose findings were released on October 20, 2021.
The complaints filed by the victim’s mother, Olga Costas Rodríguez, in which she alleged that the judges violated the Canons of Judicial Ethics during the hearings in which her daughter appeared, were filed away.]
I’m going to talk about Andrea Ruiz Costas, because I think that her memory deserves to be mentioned and her family has also asked that we don’t forget her—in addition to the fact that it was the case that generated specific processes of introspection by the judiciary, including the investigation into the judges who addressed her requests for a protection order and the complaint she filed against her aggressor. The report on the investigation into judges Sonia Nieves Cordero and Ingrid Alvarado Rodríguez establishes their scope and limitations when imposing sanctions. What’s the analysis of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of this judicial process?
For starters, I know —and I’m convinced— Andrea will always be there and will be a presence. I think it’s a milestone in our lives. I don’t think anyone who has lived through that moment will forget it. And although, because of the femicides in early 2021, other initiatives came up, the initiatives of self-reflection began much earlier. Initiatives to improve the system and to address and eradicate gender violence began much earlier.
Agreed. I’m referring to the result of that report, for which I think there was a higher expectation.
Look, I think it’s a little unfair. Let me tell you why I believe that it’s unfair. And, in part, I’m the cause of the problem. Why? For wanting to have relatively quick answers, a group of acting judges, who continued to work 24/7 in full shifts, were asked to make an evaluation of a very complicated issue in a very short period.
I think they did an outstanding job in a relatively short period of time. Coming up with certain findings, some of which we were aware of, others not, took place within a pandemic framework—there isn’t even a reference.
As imperfect as it may be, I haven’t seen this exercise of self-reflection in other government branches and in other groups that have to do directly with the issue of gender violence. So, although it isn’t a perfect process and you can have people who would have wanted much more, I think that we have to give a little credit to what was done, that it was done at a difficult time in Puerto Rico, that we were the only entity that looks for space to carry out a critical, real look, even with the limitations that we could have by doing it internally.
But requiring that in 30 days or 60 days we provide solutions to a thousand-year-old, structural, systemic problem that encompasses all of Puerto Rico’s government institutions, that encompasses and includes the media, which certainly don’t always speak with sensitivity with which they must deal with this issue, and, on many occasions, they add to the gender problem in the way they express themselves about men and women.
And wanting that, at this time, we —the courts and the Prosecutor’s Office and the Department of Justice and the Department of the Family and the police— solve all the problems. I think it’s harmful because we take responsibility away from other institutions and other branches and other groups.
Of course, Judge, but we’re referring to reports of specific cases. An investigation was carried out on how Andrea Ruiz Costas’ case was handled, and the other report examined the cases of femicide in which the victims had interacted with the courts. In the latter, some flaws were identified. The question that remains on the table is: what are the consequences for those judges who saw these cases?
I go back to the premise. And I’m not talking specifically about Andrea’s case, I’m going to talk in general terms.
To think that a judge is responsible for the murder of a woman seems to me to be a very unfair conclusion. The judge may have done everything well and the prosecutor extraordinarily well, and the police also, and the shelters provided the necessary help, and a femicide may still occur because it isn’t a problem that you can say for certain or through some mathematical statistics whether the judge does it well or the prosecutor does it well—that we’re going to avoid all femicides in Puerto Rico.
I’m not minimizing our role or what we need to improve in the process. But it can’t be that such a complex problem is solved with something as simple as blaming a judge because a femicide happened. It seems unfair to me. It seems unfair to single it out and minimize it, because it’s a much broader problem.
Right, bu, we cannot know, if in that case —which is the one on which we have the most information— if the resources would have been granted or if it would have been done differently, Andrea would be alive. But to the extent that there is no deeper analysis or consequences, beyond talking about judicial discretion, what does the judiciary say to the victims?
Look, six of the victims [of the seven that the Courts Administration’s Working Group on Femicide Cases identified] had a protection order. So that’s a bit to put in context that this isn’t the solution either.
In other words, six of the victims were given the order and they were still murdered. But I believe that the court continues to be, with all the space we have to improve, the best alternative on many occasions—possibly in most instances. I believe that going to the police, or to the prosecutor’s office or to the courts, and getting a protection order, in most cases, works. And I think that the help received in the courts, not only because of the trained personnel there, but because of the intermediaries, because of the working relations we have with the Department of the Family, the relations we have with the police, with the shelters, I think that victims get more help than if they didn’t come to court or to shelters, than if they didn’t seek help in general.
Have we fallen short? Of course. Of course. And it’s a logical conclusion.
As a country, when you see what happens in Puerto Rico —when you see the number of women who are murdered, when you see the number of women who are assaulted, stalked, raped— well, of course, we have an island-wide problem. And my commitment is that, from the judiciary, we give the best possible response to the victims when they come in and to their families.
And I can understand. I’m not indifferent. I can understand the frustration when a tragedy occurs like the ones that have occurred this year and last, and that the answers aren’t satisfactory because we’re not solving the problem. And, no, we aren’t going to be able to solve all of them.
So the question we ask ourselves internally is: Within what we control, within what we’re called to do as judges, within the services we provide, how can we do it better? How do we tell that victim that, despite disastrous, tragic, horrible events occurring in Puerto Rico, we’re a real alternative for a victim? And I think we are, Cristina, and I think we continue to be an option because of the number of women and men who continue to come to court to seek help and that it’s given to them. But we’re a fallible system.
Those people who go to court and get the remedies they need, that’s a matter of luck? Luck with the judge that they get that time?
No. I think it is a range of factors. I think you have different types of victims. There is no victim profile. You have victims with certain needs, you have different types of aggressors. You have people who are more receptive to the help that can be given and there are those who are not. And it has a lot to do with the process that they are in at the time and the trauma that they have suffered, in what stage of the trauma they’re at if they’re ready to receive certain help. That some judges are more sensitive than others? Of course. That there are judges more prepared than others? Of course, as in every profession.
I think that we, as a society, fail in that, we focus a lot on let’s prevent that act of violence, we’re going to raise a flag, we’re going to give tools to that victim who knows when that violence is in crescendo, that volatility and that violence of that aggressor. Where do you go for help? Which shelters are close to you? What mechanisms do they have to protect their children or their pets in addition to themselves? Do you know what we don’t focus on? On the aggressor.
Why is there not a massive, coordinated, concerted approach to end the singular problem, the main problem of gender violence, which is the [male] aggressor? Or the [female] aggressor, but numerically we know that there are more [male] aggressors. And we focus on the victim and never on the aggressor, who is the only one who can stop the pattern of violent abuse. We don’t do that. And government institutions don’t focus on that. Non-governmental organizations don’t focus on that. Reporters don’t focus on that. TV, media. Nobody focuses on what can really change this in a positive way in the future, which is that we work so that there are no aggressors.