Making Amends with the Mexican Constitution: Reassessing the 1995 Judicial Reforms and Considering Prospects for Further Reform

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I. INTRODUCTION

Mexico's judicial branch is the weakest of its federal government's three branches for a variety of historical, structural, political, and socio-cultural reasons.1 On January 1, 1995, several significant amendments to the Constitution of Mexico became effective.2 The amendments, submitted by President Ernesto Zedillo one month after taking office, revised twenty-seven articles of the Mexican Constitution3 in order to reform the structure and powers of the Mexican federal judicial system.4 The amendments to the Constitution reduced the number of Supreme Court Ministers (Justices), changed the manner in which Ministers are appointed to the Court, reduced the Ministers' tenure, expanded the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, and created the Council of the Federal Judiciary (Consejo de la Judicatura Federal).5

Commentators on the Mexican legal system have criticized the 1995 amendments for not going far enough to reform the federal judiciary and strengthen the rule of law in Mexico.6 Although these commentators have identified important shortcomings of the 1995 amendments, this Note makes two contentions that differ from the previous literature. First, this Note contends that some of the constitutional amendments may be more effective than previously argued or, at least, that they contain fewer and less damning flaws than previously argued. Second, this Note agrees that some of the reforms will likely fail to markedly strengthen the judicial system, but it attributes that failure to reasons different from those cited by other commentators and identifies other potential defects. In the end, however, this Note takes a more hopeful or, at least, less doubtful, view of the 1995 amendments and the potential for judicial reform in Mexico. The bases for this view are: (1) the amendments may not be as flawed as previously contended; (2) the new amendments sought to strength the judiciary, a departure from previous "judicial reform"; and (3) a significant change in Mexican politics has occurred which, when combined with other changes taking place in the legal culture in Mexico, may affect the effectiveness of the reforms.

Although Mexico has a long tradition of amending its Constitution,7 the 1995 reforms were significant because they departed from previous reforms that strengthened the executive branch and weakened the judiciary.8 The 1995 judicial reforms are intended to strengthen the federal judiciary's independence and power.9 These reforms are a first step to strengthening the rule of law and the judicial system in Mexico. The reforms should be reevaluated, however, in light of Vincente Fox's election as President in July 2000.10 Fox's victory changes the political calculus of how and whether the legal reforms will be respected, enforced, and potentially strengthened.

Part II of this Note provides an overview of the Mexican Constitution and system of government, followed by background on the legal and judicial system in Mexico. This section looks back at Mexico's civil law tradition, surveys pre-1995 judicial reform in Mexico, and describes Mexican courts' organization and powers prior to the 1995 amendments. Part II of this Note then examines key provisions of the 1995 amendments and their underlying motivations. Finally, Part III of the Note analyzes the 1995 reforms and discusses prospects for further judicial reform. Specifically, this section will re-examine the strengths and weakness of the 1995 reforms, and consider prospects for greater judicial independence and reforms in light of the 2000 election.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Overview of the Mexican Constitution and System of Government

In Mexico, the "Supreme Power of the Federation" is divided into the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as in the United States.11 The Mexican Constitution (Constitution), modeled after the U.S. Constitution, established the Mexican government as a federal republic, comprised of thirty-one states and divided into three branches. …