When the Court Was Servile


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Mexico’s Supreme Court under the 31-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz survived the 1810 Revolution led by Francisco I. Madero, withstood the regime of Victoriano Huerta and finally succumbed to the Constitutionalist Revolution, which closed it down on Aug. 25, 1914.

Mexico’s 1917 Constitution established an autonomous Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN). New powers were conferred on it: the ability to review federal court rulings, to hear controversies between branches and levels of government to a certain extent, to investigate serious violations of individual guarantees. With the abolition of the Justice Secretariat, Mexico’s judiciary gained independence, and the institutional reconstruction of the nation’s judiciary branch began.

Unfortunately, that reconstruction was extremely limited. From the creation of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) in 1929, Mexico’s Supreme Court began to see itself excluded from fundamental aspects of the revolutionary project. This happened in the case of agrarian redistribution. As the judicial processes hindered the endowment of land to the ejidos (plots of communal land mainly used for agriculture) in December 1931, the Agrarian Law of 1915 was amended to leave the affected owners without the right to legal protection.

That same year, a courageous justice of the SCJN, Alberto Vásquez del Mercado, made the unprecedented decision to resign his post in protest against the violation of a legal appeal that protected Luis Cabrera, a former revolutionary who had been expelled from the country for criticizing the regime in a conference.

In 1934, then-Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas went even further: He dissolved the Supreme Court to appoint a new one, not only dependent on the executive, but renewable for six years.

Although, in 1940, President Manuel Ávila Camacho decreed the immobility of the Supreme Court justices and the SJJN continued to issue injunctions against government acts (especially in commercial areas), in political terms, Cárdenas’ decree accompanied its most repressive and authoritarian measures, such as establishing the the crime of “social dissolution.”

This type of criminal legislation was created in 1941, in anticipation of a possible participation of Mexico in World War II. In 1951, during the six-year term of President Miguel Alemán, the article was amended to target communist sympathizers and other leftist dissidents. Any opponent was in danger: a protester, an artist, a journalist, an intellectual.

The first major application of this barbaric article occurred with the railroad strike of 1959. The railroad workers arrested as a result of that movement filed requests for legal appeals based on the unconstitutional nature of this political crime, citing the vagueness of its legal definition. The Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court took up the matter in February 1961. Justice Juan José González Bustamante determined that the ruling was necessary in the “world environment of constant anxiety and restlessness” of the Cold War years, and for this reason the protections should be denied.

With this precedent, Mexico’s Supreme Court would deny the appeals filed by the students and teachers imprisoned as a result of the student movement of 1968. In 1971, the prisoners obtained their freedom with the repeal of that crime ordered by President Luis Echeverría.

Although over time the Supreme Court had been less subservient to the executive than Congress, it genuflected several times between 1970 and 1994. These instances are hardly worth remembering.

In his 1994 campaign, Ernesto Zedillo stressed the need for a reform of the administration and administration of justice. Four days after his inauguration, he presented to Congress the most profound reform to the Supreme Court since Cardenas’ in 1934.

In addition to the dismissal of all the justices at that time, Zedillo proposed reducing their number from 26 to 11, modifying the election process to give greater weight to the Senate, and limiting the tenure of Supreme Court justices to 15 years, with a staggered substitution. Additionally, the project expanded the powers of the court to hear constitutional controversies between powers and levels of government, and introduced the action of unconstitutionality, essential powers to guarantee the balance between powers. And to separate the work of the Supreme Court from the management of the federal judiciary, he established the Federal Judicial Council, in charge of the administration, supervision and discipline of the courts.

The reforms entered into force on Dec. 31, 1994. Since then, not without painful relapses, the Supreme Court stopped courting the president. Hopefully soon it will break forever with that ignominious custom that degrades it, and that degrades the free and democratic country that Mexico should be.

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