Legal Eagles Flock to Unlock Laws : U.S., Mexico Lawyers Focus on Cross-Border Problems

Times Staff Writer

On the face of it, the call that attorney Jorge Santistevan took Friday morning did not require any special legal expertise. The caller simply needed to know how to serve papers on a defendant in a civil lawsuit--a procedure undertaken by San Diego lawyers on innumerable occasions every day.

But the twist that made the inquiry unusual was that the caller represented a San Diego company and the defendant was in Guadalajara, Mexico. Santistevan the attorney had to draw upon the resources of Santistevan the abogado. A practicing lawyer in both the United States and Mexico, Santistevan had the answer that most of his colleagues in the San Diego bar would have had to grope to find.

Like most of her colleagues in the Tijuana bar, meanwhile, Carmen Yolanda Navarro cannot claim more than a passing acquaintance with American jurisprudence. But she is barraged with questions from Mexican clients about their encounters with the law in San Diego and she wants to be able to meet their needs.

“We live one minute or 10 minutes across the border,” she said. “We come here two or three times a week. We could get in a problem easy.”

The ever-expanding commerce in people and merchandise crossing the international border brought Navarro and Santistevan and about 40 other lawyers from Tijuana and San Diego together Friday at the University of San Diego School of Law. In a rare expression of mutual need, the San Diego County Bar Assn. and the Maria Sandoval de Zarco Bar--the women’s bar association of Tijuana--held a joint meeting under the auspices of the law school’s Mexico-United States Law Institute.

“Every lawyer in San Diego in their practice is going to have a Mexican law or Mexican economy case come up to them,” said Peter R.J. Thompson, chairman of the San Diego bar’s Mexico liaison committee.

“If I need to have someone make a court appearance or provide legal representation in the Republic of Mexico, I need to know lawyers there,” he said. “There’s so much cross-border business and capital flight out of Mexico that there’s many situations where Mexican attorneys need to call on someone (in the U.S.) for advice.”

The meeting Friday focused on traffic law, a wellspring of confusing--and often frightening--legal problems for international travelers and an instructive example of the vivid contrasts between the American and Mexican legal systems.

As unfortunate American tourists quickly discover, a traffic accident is a criminal offense in Mexico, subject to intense police investigation and harsh fines and punishment. Visitors from Tijuana to San Diego, meanwhile, may learn that drunk driving is dealt with more severely in the United States than in Mexico. Both nations have complex systems of state and federal courts, of civil and criminal procedures and of felony and misdemeanor prosecutions--but they are different complex systems.

And as the border resident so often finds, the most basic distinction between the two countries is that they conduct their business in different languages. Lingual differences were much in evidence during Friday’s meeting, as speakers repeatedly promised to translate their remarks but more often than not stuck to Spanish only, whether it was their first language or not.

Leaders of both bar associations pledged that the get-together was only a beginning, a renewal of international ties that had faded during several years of neglect.

“We hope next time it will be in Baja,” said Navarro, president of the Tijuana group.

“Cabo San Lucas?” asked Thompson, drawing a bilingual laugh from the lawyers.

“Maybe Rosarito,” Navarro replied.