It is ironic that while Jesus Christ himself criticized the power lawyers enjoyed (Mt: 23), two thousand years later our largely Christian country is for a considerable part still ruled by them. We will examine some of the consequences of living in a republic of lawyers.
Law is by far the most common background of politicians in the Western world, distantly followed by economics. Yet the power and status that jurists enjoy (and law students claim) for being close to both political and corporate power, stand in sharp contrast to the respectability they enjoy amongst the broad population. Especially in Mexico, where people have low trust in both the justice system and politicians, whom are often associated with corruption. I recently got brutally reminded of this fact by having to loan money to a friend who was solicited (!) by a judge to pay him to be confirmed innocent for a crime somebody else committed. A respectable and kind man, I heard. In this essay we will reflect on the causes and consequences of a state that is dominated by lawyers – or politicians that act like them.
Starting with the causes. On first sight it is evident that people schooled in law qualify to be lawmakers. It is thus no wonder that many good and valuable forces in any party have a passion for law. On second sight, it makes them equally qualified to be assisting public representatives rather than being them, given weighing public policy is still quite a different matter. It might assume knowledge of trivial things such as, for example, if the average monthly sueldito of Mexicans is 50.000 pesos or not (spoiler, it’s 4.456$ according to CONEVAL).
Let us look at some deeper reasons. In his 1919 lecture Politics as a Vocation, the sociologist Max Weber makes an early analysis of why already back then lawyers were overrepresented in politics. He identifies two key causes. First, since becoming (or even working for) an elected politician is extremely uncertain, it are usually well off people who can take the risk of running for public office (for working class people, this is more of a do-or-die affair). Within this elite, the craft of politics is more suited for people who are dispensable at their work, which discourages for example active entrepreneurs. Instead they sponsor lawyers to do it, who’s commission based work is easier to put on hold and pick back up. Second, because lawyers are trained in defending interests regardless of moral questions. This makes them natural front men defending the interests of the elites in the backroom.
So what is wrong with this republic of lawyers? We will start by reflecting on their direct involvement in politics, and will later comment on the state of the Mexican justice system in general.
As suggested earlier, Lawyers bring a very different concept of ‘representation’ to democracy than the one initially envisioned by the early Greeks. The fact that a considerable part of congress (and governor) candidates has this background, adds to the heavy upper(middle) class bias in the walks of life that are directly represented. Additionally, the fact that they are trained to defend private interests is also visible in the dynamics of political debate, or better said: total lack of true political debate. Senates are turned into some sort of tragi-comical purgatories where people are forced to try to convince people who are paid to not be convinced (unless they get bribed to pass an energy reform, of course).
A different consequence is that our politicians, legal background or not, often seem to handle political drama like lawyers. In Mexico, this increasingly takes the form of what I would like to call denuncia-mania: from the almost weekly denouncements of the health secretary to the proud posing of PAN representatives with legal denouncements of the L12 metro crash in front of an active disaster scene, there is no end to hopeless and awkward denouncements. If ‘Mexican opposition politician’ had an official picture on Wikipedia, it would show a guy in suit proudly standing in front of some institution with a denouncement on a clipboard. The point of these denouncements is of course to posture rather than the serious pursuit of justice. We saw this in Nuevo León when the two main governor candidates in 2021 (both lawyers) denounced each other, but were caught completely off guard when actual investigations got announced. The reaction of one of those lawyers, Adrian de la Garza, leads to the second observation: rather than directly facing critiques, todays lawyer-politician has the reflex to simply counter-denounce. This new strategy helps to muddy the waters and allows people to speak the language of justice regardless of morality. In the case of Adrian – who was accused of voter manipulation – this took the absurd form of travelling to New York to denounce the Mexican state with the Organization of American States. A collateral effect of this clowning is that, to the average observer, legal denouncements became a purely formalistic gesture rather than the starting point of justice.
Looking beyond direct participation in politics, we should also reflect at the larger political problems surrounding men of law, in particular within the judicial branch of government. Now in their natural habitat, the problem is not politicians acting like lawyers, but men of law approaching their job like politicians.
I am here of course referring to the staggering amounts of corruption within the justice system. This epidemic of judicial corruption got so bad that the head of the Marines – the most trusted institution in Mexico – publicly stated that that the judicial power is an enemy to their work. It became virtually impossible for the armed forces to fight organized crime, given criminals widely enjoyed judicial protection in the North. This type of protection often takes the form of political patronage, as was clearly visible this summer in the ongoing case of the persecution of the governor of Tamaulipas. Governor Cabeza de Vaca was wanted for organized crime by federal prosecutors (context: he is the third of the last four governors to face prosecution for this), but got a local judge to provide him immunity against the arrest order. Going further in the counter-attack logic described earlier, he had local lawmakers petition an investigation into the judge that signed his own arrest warrant, and denounced the federal prosecutor with the federal prosecutor! The fact that PAN got wiped out by Morena in the following local elections might signal that ordinary people have their doubts about the honorability of the esteemed gentlemen involved and the sincerity of their respect for the rule of law in Tamaulipas.
Direct corruption is of course not the only way legal experts are a problem for the functioning of the state. One particular breed of them causes more damage to public policy that any corrupt politician: tax lawyers. Helping virtually every wealthy person or corporation evade contributions to the state (who needs teachers and vaccines anyway), their cynicism is shocking even to the critical mind. To give an anecdotal example: I recall a staff training at TEC de Monterrey where we were tasked to reflect on ethics in our field. The man next to me raised his hand and replied: “sorry, this cannot be applied to our field of tax law”. A discussion ensued between us, in which the man turned out to be dead serious and held a passionate plea for working for the highest bidder and not teaching students ethics if they were to do their job well. If only the SAT would pay over 250.000 a month, he would turn and embrace public virtue, for he was a good man inside. The discussion ended with me being declared a naive foreigner for suggesting one could raise a family with anything less that such a hunger wage.
To be clear: I don’t mean to smear the profession of lawyers, who could play a very important role in the restoration of (social) justice. Although I share the popular and Christian suspicion that many study the rules of the game to exploit them, my plea is against the corruption of the craft due to its closeness to power rather than the craft itself. The objective is to constructively rethink our republic.
First we need to rethink representation. Rather than trying to remove lawyers from politics (they have a right to be there), we should learn to appreciate class diversity in politics as much as we do gender diversity – or at least not actively hate it. Instead of making fun of candidates who don’t have masters in business or law, we have to identify and remove the barriers that stop other people from participating. Robust legal and policy support from parties to their candidates can play a role in that.
Second we need to support constructive reforms of the judiciary branch, which at this point is simply dysfunctional and seems to exist to hinder any change. This institutional legitimacy crisis cannot be cured by conservatively parroting that the constitution and independence of the judicial power must be respected in name of the rule of law, if the public at large has no faith whatsoever that there is any rule of law. Similarly, defending the separation of powers as a means to stop any judicial reform ignores that the reality of the Mafia de Poder implies there is no true separation of powers, both within (local) governments and more importantly between economic, political and judicial power.
Last, we have to understand that mistrust in the justice system in itself is sustaining the corruption within it, in the sense that if ordinary citizens don’t use legal tools and make actual denouncements, it is hard to make justice work for us. Law faculties need to take discussions on corruption more serious in their curriculum, but law and justice must also be brought closer to the people. Popular education into the basic use of legal measures as a form of self-defense or for claiming for example social rights could be a first step in this emancipation.