Author Francisco A. Avalos, a retired law librarian and associate professor of legal research, set about compiling a comprehensive research guide for the legal and general history of Mexico in his book, Legal History of Mexico: From the Era of Exploration of the New World to the Present. He traces Mexico’s legal history beginning with the exploration, discovery, and conquest of the New World through the Aztec Empire to the current Mexican legal system with the Colonial Period of New Spain and the Mexican Revolution in between.
During the period of exploration, discovery, and conquest, legal principles were based primarily on papal bulls, proclamations issued by the Pope having legal and moral authority and allowing for the expansion of lands over which the Catholic faith would have domain. Because the actual conquest was a contractual relationship between the Spanish Crown and the explorer, conquistadors were required to follow a legal procedure established by the Crown prior to and during the undertaking of the conquest. When the conquistadors arrived in Mexico, namely Hernan Cortés, they found a civilization that already had a legal system in place. Many of the primary materials concerning the legal system of the Aztec Empire have been lost as are a lot of the details describing it. However, according to Avalos, much of the Aztec law was based on custom and tradition. Religion also played a large role in the legal system devised by the Aztecs, and, in the Aztec judiciary structure, religious courts had jurisdiction over all religious matters. The author examines in detail some substantive areas of Aztec law, including family law, property law, economic law, tax and tribute law, criminal law, treaty law, and the law of war. Other areas of interest discussed by the author is the Aztec social system, which was separated into classes, and the Aztec government, which was divided into two entities with the Emperor sitting at the head.
Avalos also focused on the legal history of New Spain, covering the period from the fall of the Aztec Empire (1522) to the independence of Mexico (1821). This period is characterized by the establishment of the government and judiciary by the Spanish Crown and the enactment of various laws, including the Laws of the Indies, a three-volume compilation divided into nine books and 218 titles. One of the unique laws to come out of this period was the Derecho Indiano, a combination of Castilian law and indigenous law that was meant to be the major source for public and administrative law in New Spain.
The author also discusses the legal systems and laws that arose during important parts of Mexican history, such as the Independence Period (1800-1821), the Reform Period (1857-1861), the Second Mexican Empire (1861-1867), the “Porfiriato” Period (1877-1911), the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), and present day. He focuses on laws that were enacted during those specific periods and the legal and historical significance surrounding such laws and how the events occurring in those periods affected the laws that were enacted. For instance, the Reform Period, coming on the heels of Mexican independence, is historically significant because its laws formed the basis of the Mexican Constitution of 1857 and the current Mexican Constitution, which is that of 1917. Avalos also examines in detail the provisions of the Constitution of 1917, which was viewed as a document that would ignite and bring about social change.
Throughout history, the legal system of Mexico has undergone numerous changes. Avalos sets out to document these changes, from the legal system and government implemented by the Aztec Empire through its existence as New Spain to its tumultuous existence in the 20th Century. If you want to learn more about Mexico’s complex legal history, have a look at Legal History of Mexico: From the Era of Exploration of the New World to the Present.