Audiencia, a regional high court in Spanish America in the colonial era and the district under its jurisdiction. Audiencias were the highest judicial tribunals in the Spanish colonies, enjoyed executive and legislative authority, and, in the absence of a region's chief executive, served as the executive on an interim basis. The first audiencia was established in 1511, and by 1606 there were eleven colonial tribunals: in Santo Domingo, Mexico City, Panama, Guatemala, Lima, Guadalajara, Santa Fe (New Granada), Charcas, Quito, Chile, and Manila. Panama's tribunal was abolished in 1751, but by the close of the colonial era there were additional tribunals in Buenos Aires, Caracas, and Cuzco. With the exception of Cuzco and Guadalajara, the audiencia districts became, with modest modifications, the territorial bases for nation-states after independence.
Each audiencia had a presiding officer, judges, and at least one crown attorney (fiscal). The sizes of the audiencias varied substantially, however. The early audiencias were small, consisting of a president, several judges who handled both civil and criminal cases, and one crown attorney. In 1568, the viceregal tribunals of Lima and Mexico were assigned additional judges to handle criminal cases (alcaldes del crimen); the remaining judges (oidores) specialized in civil cases. With the expansion of the courts in 1776, each audiencia had a regent who oversaw the overall operation of the tribunal, three or more oidores, and two fiscales, one for civil and one for criminal cases. The tribunals of Lima and Mexico also had several alcaldes del crimen, giving the courts a total of eighteen ministers each. Together, the American audiencias had one hundred ministers.
Audiencia judges and crown attorneys were required to be university-trained lawyers and at least twenty-five years of age when named to a court. Their appointments were for life or the pleasure of the king.
As the most professional branch of the royal bureaucracy and the most important civil institutions under their jurisdiction's chief executive, audiencias held prestige and power in judicial, legislative, and executive matters. Among their judicial responsibilities was first-instance jurisdiction for cases that related to the royal treasury and for certain cases that arose in the capital cities where they resided. As courts of appeal within their districts, audiencias exercised final authority in criminal cases and most civil suits.
The audiencias also had executive and legislative responsibilities. A district's chief executive received the audiencia's advice on all major questions; decisions reached through this consultation had the force of law unless disallowed by the Council of the Indies. In the executive's absence, the court assumed his duties and governed. Audiencias also were required to enforce royal laws, and to that end judges undertook periodic inspection tours within their districts. Judges also often sat with one or more corporate bodies in a colony, such as the merchants' guild.
Audiencias, then, possessed formidable powers. Their role in judicial affairs and in overseeing the implementation of royal legislation made their decisions important for the communities they served. Since appointments of audiencia ministers were for life or royal pleasure, the audiencias provided an element of continuity at the highest level. Incoming executives disregarded their advice only with peril. Armed with far-reaching authority, the audiencias were, always in theory and often in fact, an important check on other institutions of government.
Although the initial audiencia ministers were born in Spain, men born in the New World (creoles) began to receive audiencia appointments in 1585. From that year to 1687, creoles constituted 24 percent of all new appointees. In 1687, the Crown began to sell audiencia appointments during periods of financial crisis and, as a result, Americans secured 44 percent of the appointments until 1750, most through purchase, and many in their district of birth. As a result of securing dispensations from legislation restricting local social and economic ties, many of these purchasers were deeply linked to their region of service, a circumstance that compromised their ability to provide impartial justice. When the Crown stopped sales and began to reassert its authority over the courts in the early 1750s, the percentage of Americans who entered the courts dropped back to 24 percent. This change, which was most pronounced in the appointments immediately following the expansion of the courts' size in 1776, did not go unnoticed by creoles. With regard to the audiencias, their clamor for appointments was not, as was once thought, to gain entry into high positions, but rather to return to an era in which they had enjoyed frequent access to these powerful courts.
Recopilación de leyes de los reynos de las Indias, 4 vols. (1681; repr. 1973), libro II, títulos XV-XVIII.
John H. Parry, The Audiencia of New Galicia in the Sixteenth Century (1948).
John L. Phelan, The Kingdom of Quito in the Seventeenth Century (1967).
Guillermo Lohmann Villena, Los Ministros de la audiencia de Lima en el reinado de los Borbones (1700–1821) (1974).
Mark A. Burkholder and D. S. Chandler, From Impotence to Authority: The Spanish Crown and the American Audiencias, 1687–1808 (1977), and Biographical Dictionary of Audiencia Ministers in the Americas, 1687–1821 (1982).
Andrien, Kenneth J. The Kingdom of Quito, 1690–1830: The State and Regional Development. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Barrios, Feliciano. El gobierno de un mundo: Virreinatos y audiencias en la América hispánica. Cuenca, Ecuador: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha: Fundación Rafael del Pino, 2004.
Hawkins, Timothy. José De Bustamante and Central American Independence: Colonial Administration in an Age of Imperial Crisis. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Sanciñena Asurmendi, Teresa. La audiencia en México en el reinado de Carlos III. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1999.
Mark A. Burkholder