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Mexico judiciary faces unprecedented case backlog

The contentious and disruptive reforms led by President López Obrador have caused an increase in legal actions brought to Mexico’s courts, and the judiciary is scrambling to meet the challenge.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Federal judges in Mexico will have their work cut out for them next year, as the country’s judicial branch faces the largest backlog of cases in its history.

The holiday season will have offered little respite from an already record-breaking year for the country’s magistrates, as 525,000 cases await resolution in 2023, according to Mexico’s Federal Judiciary Council (CJF). 

The number of new cases introduced in the courts reached an all-time high of over 1.3 million in 2022, 14% more than the previous peak of 1.176 million new cases in 2019.

The current decade has seen a marked increase in judicial activity after a relatively stable period in the 2010s, when the new caseload fluctuated between 200,000 and 300,000 a year.

This is largely thanks to legal actions against the contentious policies of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. His reforms to the country’s electric and electoral systems and the creation and militarization of the National Guard have divided the country along political lines.

As part of their plan to eliminate corruption and alleviate poverty known as the Fourth Transformation, López Obrador and his ruling Morena party have spearheaded several executive and legislative actions that have disrupted the status quo in Mexico. 

“This government has been very careless in terms of the limits of the Constitution and existing laws,” said legal scholar Javier Martín Reyes, who added that factors such as the procedures particular to Mexico’s Supreme Court and the varying speeds at which presiding judges conduct their initiatives also help explain the backlog. 

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which can pick and choose the cases it takes up during a given session, Mexico’s highest tribunal is obligated to hear the majority of the cases brought before it.

“The court doesn’t have the liberty to choose which cases it wants to hear,” said Reyes.

While it has been less controversial than other aspects of the Fourth Transformation, the president’s labor reform has also played a role in the record-high caseload. Before the 2019 reform, labor disputes were settled by ad hoc arbitration committees. Now specialized tribunals in the judiciary are tasked with settling such disputes. 

“This undoubtedly also explains part of the increase in the docket of the federal judiciary,” said Reyes.

At the final press conference of his four-year term at the helm of both the Supreme Court and the CJF, outgoing Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar said this new model has been a “major challenge” to the judiciary.

“But thanks to a firm commitment, determined institutional efforts and an efficient budgetary exercise, in four years we constructed a system of labor justice that is equal, expeditious, impartial, modern and professionalized for all of the country’s inhabitants,” said Zaldívar. 

Mexico’s judiciary isn’t meeting the challenge unprepared. In 2023, it will ramp up its efforts to deal with the unprecedented pileup of cases. With the addition of 46 new labor tribunals, six new prison courts and six other unrelated tribunals, the judiciary will for the first time in its history preside over more than 1,000 courts and 1,500 district and circuit court judges. It will also have over 50,000 employees for the first time in its history.

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