Legal Spanish: When cortes is not a “court”

The internet sources that translate las Cortes Generales literally as “General Courts” are too numerous to mention. The expression obviously does not refer to a court, but rather denotes Spain’s bicameral legislature, the Spanish counterpart of the US Congress or the UK Parliament, including the Congreso de los Diputados (lower house) and the Senado (upper house). Several of the legislative assemblies of the Spanish regional governments (comunidades autónomas) are likewise called “cortes” (Cortes de Aragón, Cortes de Castilla-León, Cortes de Castilla-La Mancha, Corts Valencianes). And, in this context, rendering cortes literally as “courts” could prompt a miscue, suggesting that the institution in question is part of the Spanish judiciary or court system, and not a legislative assembly.

In that regard, although corte is indeed a synonym for tribunal de justicia in many Spanish-American jurisdictions, as used in Spain and as noted above, cortes (in the plural) generally refers to a legislative assembly, courts of justice being designated variously as juzgado, tribunal, audiencia, órgano jurisdiccional or órgano judicial, depending on the context. Corte is indeed sometimes used in Spain to refer to international courts, such as the Corte Penal Internacional (International Criminal Court in the Hague), but it is just as frequently known as the Tribunal Penal Internacional. Thus, to preclude any confusion with the court system las Cortes Generales should obviously be translated as “the Spanish Parliament,” and the autonomous community cortes as “regional (or) autonomous community legislative assemblies.”

In other respects, it should nevertheless be noted that in English “court” may also denote a legislative assembly, and the bicameral legislatures of the states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire are indeed called the “General Court,” as were formerly the legislative assemblies of Vermont and Connecticut.

And, perhaps to add to the confusion, the “General Court” (formerly, the Court of First Instance) is one of two EU judicial bodies, which together with the Court of Justice of the European Union is tasked with ensuring uniform interpretation and application of EU law.

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