Mexican President Pledges Fix-It Plan For Justice System

IN many countries, announcement of a top-to-bottom judicial reform might draw little more than a big ho-hum.

But in Mexico - where a corrupt and inaccessible system of justice affects average citizens from their contact with the police to the ``off-limits'' sign they perceive hanging over the nation's courts - President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Les unveiling last week of an ambitious remake of the judicial system was greeted with hearty applause.

``This reform has the broad and enthusiastic support of most legal specialists,'' says Jose Luis Soberanes, director of the Judicial Investigation Institute at the National Autonomous University here. ``It will also be important to average citizens because it is an essential part of democratization and will increase access to justice.''

Coming less than a week after Mr. Zedillo's inauguration, the announcement is seen as an effort to demonstrate to Mexicans that their president will act decisively on his campaign promises.

In his inaugural speech Dec. 1, Zedillo said that under him Mexico would become a nation where the rule of law would replace corruption, public insecurity, and widespread impunity.

The reform, which Zedillo said would be perfected as it is reviewed by Congress, calls for a recasting of the Supreme Court with stricter qualifying criteria for justices, Senate approval of the presidentially appointed attorney general, creation of a judicial council to relieve judges' administrative duties, closer cooperation among state law enforcement agencies, and specific measures to open the judicial system to average citizens.

Gabriel Castaneda, an attorney and member of the group that developed the proposal, says a chief goal of the reform is to increase the judicial system's ``accountability'' - a concept apparently so new to Mexican government that the English word is employed in otherwise Spanish conversations.

One important aspect of the reform is that it gives average citizens recourse to higher judicial powers if local prosecutors do not respond to their concerns or complaints.

``This is an important step in addressing public concern about impunity,'' says German Fernandez, presidential legal director.

But the possibility always remains that custom will be followed and though the laws will be passed, they would have little effect.

One of the most welcome measures will be the stricter criteria for naming a scaled-down Supreme Court, Mr. Soberanes says. Judges now are often culled from among ministers and other politicians, but the reform calls for a waiting period before officeholders could sit on the bench.

It would also require a two-thirds vote of the Senate to ratify a nomination instead of the current majority. ``This should help give us judges who rule according to law and their conscience, rather than for those who nominated them,'' he says.

The reform is expected to encounter little opposition, although it could still face trouble from entrenched interests that would be hurt by it. Sounding a cautionary note, legal specialist and reform advocate Julio Faesler wrote in the Mexico City daily, Reforma, last week that Mexico's ``dramatic events of 1994'' - which included assassinations of reform-minded officials - ``offer testimony of the way certain powerful elements are capable of reacting when they feel their interests are threatened.''

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