In a supremely unusual trend, Mexico’s bench taking a stand

Times Staff Writer

In a series of dramatic televised hearings over the last month, 11 men and women in black robes have given the Mexican people something they are unaccustomed to seeing -- an activist Supreme Court.

Key rulings by the court have produced a subtle but important shift in Mexico’s political landscape. The court has reined in one of the nation’s most powerful business interests and is moving against two rogue governors.

Gone are the staid and arcane proceedings of times past, replaced with impassioned speeches from the bench about democracy and the rule of law. Several times this month, the chambers have been filled with a noise rarely heard since the modern court’s creation in 1917: the sound of applause.

On Thursday, the court agreed to create a committee to investigate the political violence and disorder in the southern state of Oaxaca, ruled by the almost universally reviled Gov. Ulises Ruiz.


On Monday, it’s scheduled to begin considering whether it should form a similar panel to investigate Puebla Gov. Mario Marin, absolved by lower courts of abuse-of-power charges in the case of an investigative journalist arrested in his state.

“Oaxaca may no longer be in flames, but it still burns internally,” Justice Genaro Gongora Pimentel said from the bench as the court discussed the chaos that enveloped the state capital last year, in which 20 people were killed. “Oaxacan society is waiting for justice.... Our intervention is necessary.”

Analysts say the court is acting because President Felipe Calderon and a divided Congress have failed to move against entrenched interests and corrupt local leaders. Though most of its members were appointed by Mexico’s previous two presidents, and all were confirmed by Congress, public outrage has forced the court to act, analysts say.

“The court is stepping up to the plate to fill a worrisome void,” said John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Ackerman said the court’s recent actions were unprecedented in Mexican history.

A strong, independent Supreme Court is a relatively recent creation in Mexican jurisprudence, Ackerman said. For much of the 20th century, a single political party controlled all branches of government here. Not until judicial reform in 1994 did the court get broad powers to make decisions that have the force of law.

On June 7, the court used this power to overturn a law that granted huge concessions to the nation’s two largest media conglomerates. The legislation was known here as “the Televisa law” because lawyers for that company helped draft it.

Many here saw the law as a massive giveaway to the companies: Among other things, it would have granted both Televisa and TV Azteca 20-year licenses to the airwaves that were easily renewable.

In the weeks before the Supreme Court ruled, most observers doubted the justices would take any action that would hurt the firms. Speaking from the bench, Justice Sergio Salvador Aguirre Anguiano disabused critics of such notions.


“They don’t know what we’re made of,” he said. “We’re here to fulfill the duty entrusted to us ... without political influence upon us, simply according to our convictions, impartially, without raucous talk, just as is laid out in the constitution.”

The court found the media law both a violation of the right to free speech and a hindrance to the operation of a free market.

“Never before has the court taken on such a powerful interest group,” said Ana Laura Magaloni, a law professor at the Center for Economic Research and Education here. “The court took action because it had to: All the other branches of government had caved in.”

Several commentators have drawn comparisons in recent days between Mexico’s Supreme Court and the activist U.S. court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and 1960s, whose landmark decisions transformed American society.


“The court is intervening to ensure that Mexico’s democratic transition isn’t stalled,” said Denise Dresser, a writer here who attended a public forum with the justices about the Televisa law. “The court has become an instrument of last resort in the face of a political class that won’t change the status quo.”

But not everyone is celebrating the new high-profile court.

“Careful. We are entering dangerous territory,” columnist Pablo Hiriart wrote in the newspaper Excelsior. “When the court wants to govern, when its rulings seek the applause of the majority, then it’s time to tighten your seat belt, because there’s going to be turbulence.”

Legal scholar Miguel Carbonell of the National Autonomous University of Mexico has been critical of the court because he says its recent decisions often have been poorly argued and written.


Unlike U.S. jurists, who can call upon a 200-year tradition of constitutional law, only in the last decade have Mexico’s begun to debate the role of federal courts as impartial arbiters empowered to give the final word on the meaning of the constitution.

“These justices came up through the old, PRI-dominated system,” Carbonell said, referring to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which for decades ran Mexico as a virtual one-party state. “They aren’t mentally prepared for a pluralist system.”

Still, Carbonell applauded the court’s recent actions. Of the Televisa law, he said, “It was a case where the public pressure was so great, they had to act.”

The court this week formally created the panel to investigate the violence in Oaxaca city, set off by Gov. Ruiz’s attempt to quash a teachers strike and demonstrations in support of it. Despite calls for his impeachment, Ruiz has held on to power in large measure because his party, the PRI, controls the state legislature. PRI legislators in the federal Congress have used their influence to prevent Ruiz’s impeachment by that body.


“In Mexico, politicians are used to circling the wagons around corrupt leaders,” Dresser said. In years past, the very worst leaders were simply “persuaded” to leave office by PRI party leaders. Rarely were they subjected to due process because doing so probably would expose the widespread corruption from which most of the political class benefited, she said.

Now, Dresser added, the court has become one of several entities trying to create a “culture of accountability” in Mexico.

The court soon will take up another controversial case: Mexico City’s law legalizing abortion in that city. Few analysts are willing to predict how the justices will rule.



Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.