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  • Mexico’s Supreme Court: Between Liberal Individual and Revolutionary Social Rights, 1867-1934 by Timothy M. James
  • Joseph L. Scarpaci
Mexico’s Supreme Court: Between Liberal Individual and Revolutionary Social Rights, 1867-1934. Timothy M. James. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013. xvi + 168 pp., notes, selected bibliography, and index. $45.00 cloth (ISBN 978-0-8263-5378-8).

A good argument can be made that the French, American, Cuban, and Mexican revolutions shifted fundamental liberal thought in myriad ways. However, less is known about the legal and judicial systems that drove those social experiments. In this work, historian Timothy M. James seeks to understand why the 1917 Mexican Constitution did not immediately trigger labor and agrarian reform. The topic is unusual because Mexico is not particularly known for its constitutional jurisprudence. Although the Porfiriato era regularly ignored the protection of constitutional rights, little research has addressed why there was nearly a three-decade lag in implementing the full guarantees of the Mexican Revolution.

Jurisprudential sources include the writings of jurists, legal professionals, and federal tribunal writings. In turn, they frame and grant protection to constitutional rights. James argues that constitutional social rights have been unduly focused on legislative versus judicial matters. In doing so, claims James, scholars “have failed to appreciate the many ways in which legal changes brought about by the judicial interpretation have been concealed by legislative continuities, or they have failed to register the way continuities in judicial interpretation could present an obstacle to the implementation of new legislation” (p. xii). In other words, to reduce the study of law (anywhere) to only legislation produces glaring oversight in the literature about the Mexican Revolution, and that means understanding how the Supreme Court foot-dragged in implementing socioeconomic rights. Behind the court’s resistance to social change are, not surprisingly, large Mexican landowners, key industrialists, shipping tycoons, and other stakeholders who sought to preserve the status quo (scholars interested in the current U.S. Supreme Court under Justice Roberts will note similarities). Constitutional procedures that protect individual liberal rights (called amparo in Spanish) take hold firmly in Mexico in the last third of the nineteenth century, and anchor the early period in the book’s subtitle (1867). James traces the institution’s history brings the reader forward to the beginning of swift economic reforms of President Lázaro Cárdenas’ (1934-40) sexenio. [End Page 239]

Four brief chapters and a conclusion frame this book. The work begins with the “Judicial Protection of Constitutional Rights during the Porfiriato” to set the stage for understanding the challenges of jurisprudence in Mexico. James approaches this period by sub-dividing them into four time frames and outlining key judicial acts that molded the use of amparo.

Chapter Two, “From the Plan of San Luís Potosí to the Constitution of 1917,” describes, among other highlights, the relationship that Francisco Madero had with Emiliano Zapata. Mexico’s Supreme Court continued with its appointment of federal judges as it had done during the Porfiriato, and the appointments mirror the upper-class background of U.S. and European-educated Madero. Despite the 1910 Revolution, little substantive social and economic reform takes root in years immediately thereafter.

Chapter Three hones in on a particular labor provisions (Article 123) and describes how the more unionized northern states were more successful in implementing labor reforms. Elsewhere, though, new labor provisions were thwarted by court rulings.

The topic of the final substantive chapter is “The Third Revolutionary Court and Legal Obstacles to the Implementation of Article 27.” At the heart of this chapter is the implementation of the agrarian reform laws, which would have resounding effects throughout the nation if fully implemented. Alas, “the fate of an autonomous judiciary in the immediate post-Revolutionary period remained a prisoner to amparo’s nineteenth century evolution” (100).

Three of the four chapters in Mexico’s Supreme Court were previously published, which begs the question of why an academic press –most of which are in dire fiscal straits—would print this book. The answer is plainly that most of them were published in obscure (for English-reading and non-legal scholars) Mexican law journals. This short tome...


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