Mexico’s new presumption of innocence: good news or bad?

by Kurt Schulzke on June 18, 2008

Mexican President Felipe Calderón (pictured below) yesterday inked major constitutional reforms designed to enhance Mexico’s ability to combat organized crime and drug trafficking. The reforms mandate — for the first time in Mexico’s history — that courts must initially presume defendants’ innocence, criminal trials must be public, and judges must explain the reasoning for their decisions to defendants.

Calderon signs constitutional amendments

These reforms are not novel — they have been pillars of U.S. jurisprudence for centuries — but they are welcome. Being a defendant in a Mexican courtroom should be less exasperating than before, if not enjoyable. That is, unless you happen to be suspected of involvement in organized crime. In such a case, the reforms allow the Mexican government to put you on ice for 80 days without presenting charges. Shades of Gitmo?

But here’s the bottom line from a U.S. standpoint. We can all cheer Mexico for opening its criminal courts to public scrutiny, presuming innocence and explaining why it puts defendants behind bars. But what does this change — after hundreds of years — say about the politico-cultural bias of millions of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants now in the United States? How do they impact the substance and process of our national constitutional discourse?

Wouldn’t it be fair to say that to the vast majority of such immigrants presumption of guilt, secret trials and arbitrary justice are just how government works? Is this attitude healthy for a country founded on due process and the rule of law? How should we expect those here legally to respond in the jury or ballot box? Juries have meant nothing in Mexico.

While legal immigrants show, though following immigration law, that they have some appreciation for the rule of law, what about those who just jump over the fence? Grant them amnesty, citizenship and voting rights and what happens to what is left of America’s great legal traditions?  This is not to say that today’s young, non-immigrant Americans learn what they need to in government schools. Far from it. But piling on top of our own domestic intellectual vacuum legal traditions and lawless behavior so hostile to America’s core philosophies seems a recipe for constitutional chaos.