From Plural Legal Communities to One: Manuel Alvírez and the Dispute over the Monopoly of Constitutional Interpretation in Mexico, 1850–57

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Pablo Mijangos y González, CIDE
One of the central themes of nineteenth century Mexican legal historiography is the transition from a “pluralist” legal order to one determined exclusively by the state. Generally, historians have analyzed this process by studying the process of codification and the different measures undertaken to suppress the power that corporations had to create law.  Little attention, however, has been paid to a fundamental premise of the state’s law-making authority: the monopoly power to interpret legitimately the Constitution and laws.  Until the mid-nineteenth century, it was not clear who enjoyed such power: state and federal legislatures, tribunals, jurists, the Catholic Church, or caudillos who appealed to the “Will of the Nation”?

This paper explores the conflict over the monopolization of constitutional interpretation between 1850 and 1857, through an analysis of the judicial decisions and doctrine of Manuel Teodosio Alvírez. Alvírez had been a law professor as well as president of the state of Michoacán’s supreme court. He is best known for his polemic with Bishop Munguía in respect to diocesan decrees that prohibited the taking of an oath of loyalty to the liberal Constitution of 1857.  Alvírez defended the state’s right to regulate religious questions, grounding his arguments on its authority to interpret the constitution and laws.  For Alvírez, bishops were completely lacking in the power to interpret or denounce the validity of the constitution; this was exclusively within the authority of the Congress and the higher tribunals.  For the bishop, in contrast, this power did not reside exclusively within the state, but was one that the Church also could exercise. It was a dispute that would be resolved definitively only with the liberals’ military triumph in 1867, and the complete separation between Church and state. It is then that the development of judge-made, constitutional law in Mexico’s federal courts begins.

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