Big Changes to Mexico's Judicial System

Mexico's judicial system is getting a makeover. President Felipe Calderon has signed a constitutional amendment which will allow U.S.-style public trials requiring judges to explain their decisions to defendants. Mexico-based law professor John Mill Ackerman Rose explains how the changes could affect Mexican society.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley sitting in for Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk about developments in the African nation of Zimbabwe, ahead of a presidential runoff election that's been threatened by political violence. But first, we'll start this international edition in Mexico where a long-awaited constitutional amendment changing its much criticized judicial system has been approved.

The amendment, signed by President Phillipe Calderon, allows U.S.-style public trials and requires judges to explain their decisions to defendants. Joining us to talk about the changes, as well as their impact on Mexican society, is John Mill Ackerman Rose. He's a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Welcome to the show.

Prof. JOHN MILL ACKERMAN ROSE (Institute for Legal Research, National Autonomous University of Mexico): Hi, Cheryl. Pleasure to talk to you.

CORLEY: Well, under the U.S. judicial system, we typically think of trials by jury, presumption of innocence. How has the system worked in Mexico and what changes are going to happen under this new provision?

Prof. ROSE: Well, this is a major constitutional reform which transforms the way in which crimes are investigated and punished. I think we could focus on two particular changes. One is the change from written proceedings and trials to oral proceedings and trials.

CORLEY: Well, let me just ask you, let me just interject here because - so you're saying that as it stands now, the attorneys do not argue openly in court, that everything is written, and this changes that?

Prof. ROSE: Yes.

CORLEY: And what's the second thing that changes?

Prof. ROSE: The second major change is in terms of the role of public prosecutors. The public prosecutors today in Mexico have very broad discretional capacity of researching and investigating crimes, and in fact, they are not only responsible for researching and investigating these crimes, but actually coming to an initial, pseudo-judicial decision about the guiltiness of a suspect. So they actually - these administrative officials, these public prosecutors, have judicial legal faculties which lends itself to abuse of authority because these are not judges who are actually making decisions which are equivalent to legal decisions.

With this reform we're transforming the role of these public prosecutors to only be responsible for bringing the case to court. We have a real separation now between those who decide the guiltiness and those who investigate and accuse the suspect.

CORLEY: How important are these reforms and is it positive for Mexico's judicial system?

Prof. ROSE: Yes. It is quite positive because exactly by bringing things out into the light, by making them into a public proceeding, we're going to be able to have a lot more press and citizen independent control over the way in which judges make their decisions and also the way in which these administrative offices, these public prosecutors, make their decisions. And if everything is out in public and we can see it, that could be a major step towards combating corruption in the judiciary, which is a major problem today in Mexico.

CORLEY: And exactly what President Calderon said, that this will help Mexico fight crime.

Prof. ROSE: It should. Now Calderon is talking, I think there, about a different aspect of the reform which is not completely positive, which gives extra faculties and extra powers to judges and to the prosecutors to investigate, for instance, organized crime. Now this is positive in so far as it can help the government investigate these crimes by having access to bank accounts, for instance, or having pre-trial detentions, but if it's abused then we can start having difficulties.

So for instance, the constitutional reform allows 80 days of pre-trial detention without actually having to go to - have a judge actually pronounce about the guiltiness of the suspect if this is a case of organized crime. Now this sounds...

CORLEY: So you're saying, if a person is charged with an organized crime or has done something that they consider organized crime, they can go to jail for 80 days before they are found guilty of anything?

Prof. ROSE: Exactly. Exactly. So this is a problematic aspect of this country's format. Again, it's supposed to allow the government to investigate organized crime better, but if it's abused - and organized crime is a pretty general concept. It's when three or more people join together to commit a crime, so if this is abused for political purposes, which often happens with the law in Mexico and other places, this could lead to problems in terms of human rights.

CORLEY: Professor, Mexico has until 2016 to implement these changes. What's needed to make that happen?

Prof. ROSE: Lots. This is a long, transitory clause. It's called for eight years to actually put into action all of these constitutional reforms. These are the constitutional reforms - for the first step is actually the legal reforms, right? And then we need to actually do a physical transformation of the courtrooms because presently there aren't places, actually, for litigators to appear before the judge in a public presentation. And then we also need to train lawyers to do this.

So this is I think the most central reason for giving the eight year period to actually train a whole new crop of young lawyers who don't only know how to argue the cases on paper, but actually argue them orally before a judge.

CORLEY: John Mill Ackerman Rose is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Thank you for joining us.

Prof. ROSE: Thank you very much, Cheryl.

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