Judge-Made Law in Mexico, 1850–1910: Toward the Redefinition and Establishment of Networks and Communities

AHA Session 185
Conference on Latin American History 43
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Emilio Kourí, University of Chicago
Emilio Kourí, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

This panel examines how judges – members of legal communities referencing networks of rules – made law to adjudicate conflicts among disparate communities and individuals between 1850 and 1910. The wars of independence and ensuing conflict disrupted traditional networks that had linked regions and communities during three centuries of colonial rule.  The colonial legal system that had mediated interests in a quasi-corporatist society also seemingly crumbled.  Much of the historiography of the period has understandably focused on its military and political struggles and the authoritarian system that formed subsequently; one implication of this focus has been the depreciation of the importance of its legal institutions.  Law, however, for the ruling elites and even subaltern communities remained significant, certainly partly as a connective system of dispute resolution.

The nineteenth century liberals who believed that Mexico’s progress required dismantling corporate communities that were legacies of the colonial era (in particular the Catholic Church’s extensive holdings and indigenous communities’ collective ownership of land) further believed that the state should, through a legal and judicial system, maintain public order.  That is, insofar as connections and linkages tying individuals together were adversarial, interests were ideally to be reconciled through legal institutions.  The liberal presidents from 1867 to 1910 tended, of course, to manipulate the electoral process; and Porfirio Díaz maintained his presidency through political machinations and forceful repression.  But these same presidents, if authoritarian, also normally accepted a judicial order whose function was more than simply to legitimize the new, progressive order; judges, through their decision-making, also sometimes accommodated private and community interests. Law and its institutions as networks served to link communities and individuals politically and economically.

Each presenter of this panel considers the significance of judicial decision-making.  Mijangos explores a debate in the 1850s regarding whether the Catholic Church should continue to be able to make legal determinations. His paper underscores the possibility of a plurality of communities engaged in law making, which after 1857-67 was superseded by the liberal state’s insistence of exclusively controlling this power. James discusses tensions within the judicial system during the Porfirian era (1877-1911), and the trend toward centralizing judicial power, a process that was furthered by litigants themselves.  Nuñez-Luna analyzes litigation over the appropriation and circulation of water resources.  Securing access to water was essential for enterprises and communities, and judges’ decisions articulated the networks to control the resource. Suarez-Potts considers how judges recognized the claims of unfree workers.  Some agricultural businesses during the Porfirian era relied on coercive labor systems (which constituted both networks and communities), although the 1857 Constitution established the principle of free labor. Judges had to address a social reality in variance with legal principles and did so by upholding the constitution.

In sum, the panel demonstrates how judge-made law mattered in the reformulation of networks and communities in the nineteenth century.  The papers present extensive research findings, much of which has not been published; and, together, they propose a reevaluation of the significance of law in Mexico, which should interest historians.

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