Making Rules of Law

Training lawyers in new judicial reforms

The Justice in Mexico Project has played a key role in helping to implement and enhance judicial sector reform in Mexico since 2009. The freestanding program — which resides in USD’s departments of political science and international relations — connects the university to Mexico in ways that transcend geographic proximity.

As part of the group’s work, which has the goal of “improving citizen security, bolstering the rule of law and protecting human rights in Mexico,” the project has brought together lawyers from both sides of the border to adjust to sweeping changes in the Mexican criminal justice system. The biggest shift is the introduction of oral, adversarial trials. Unlike the American justice system, communication in Mexican courts was previously handled exclusively through written documents. The new system will be implemented nationwide in June 2016.

The old system required copious amounts of paperwork that ultimately opened the door for systemic injustices. “The old process would take two or three years per case,” explains project coordinator Octavio Rodriguez, who runs the program alongside Political Science Associate Professor David Shirk.

“The defendant would be in custody during that entire time. If the defendant was eventually acquitted, they had lost three years of their life to a jail cell. With the new process, it takes three months.”

The new adversarial trials will provide greater emphasis on the due process, including the presumption of innocence and the right to adequate legal defense. But perhaps more importantly, the new process will require significant modifications to police agencies and their role in criminal investigations.

“As a criminal defense lawyer and human rights advocate, these changes are something I really believe in,” explains Janice Deaton ’10 (MA), an alumna of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies and Justice in Mexico lead trainer.

“This new system will address a lot of the problems and injustices that existed in the old system, but it’s a work in progress. Certain skills are required to argue in person,” Rodriguez says.

The United States is one of the key providers of trainers for the reform. With help from the Merida Initiative, a strategic partnership between the United States and Mexico continues to grow, and all those involved with the Mexican criminal justice community must be retrained in order for the reform to succeed. As a neighbor to Mexico, the University of San Diego is poised to help.

A number of USD institutes and faculty members are involved in all aspects of enhancing the justice system in Mexico, including the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies’ Trans-Border Institute (TBI). Its director, Everard Meade, PhD, has been very successful in his work as an expert witness in asylum cases, and has recently taught peacebuilding seminars, in both San Diego and Mexico, on topics ranging from human rights to conflict resolution. Additionally, two of TBI’s advisory council members train attorneys and judges for the reform.

Due in large part to the partnership, Justice in Mexico has attracted more than $2 million in extramural grants over the past decade. This has allowed dozens of USD students and alumni to help produce cutting-edge research and provide assistance for judicial reform efforts in Mexico.

The program’s newest project is the Oral Adversarial Skill-Building Immersion Seminar (OASIS). In 2014, Justice in Mexico received $1.1 million from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement to work in conjunction with Mexico’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Between February and April 2015, OASIS staff members joined forces with eight trial-skills instructors to provide three two-week training workshops on oral trial skills to a total of 240 participants.

Deaton, Shirk and Rodriguez worked together to provide the trainings in Mexico City. The participants included 180 law professors and 60 law students. “I had been interested in peace studies and conflict resolution all my life,” Deaton says. “Even before I became a criminal defense lawyer, I knew this was my passion.”

As they look towards the future of the program and the changes across the border, the team is optimistic. “This year, I’m really excited to get interns involved with the process. It’s always inspiring to hear their ideas and embark on a new year together,” says Deaton.

Rodriguez echoes those sentiments. “I love the work we do and I feel very lucky to be doing it and sharing it with others.” — by Taylor Dawn Milam

Pictured: Janice Deaton ‘10 (MA), a lead trainer of the Justice in Mexico Project, is part of a team that’s working toward bolstering the rule of law in Mexico. Photograph by Chris Park.