My Article on Pro Bono & Why It Is Good for Business (picture of El Santo included)

2 02 2012

The Good Fight is Good Business (Photograph by Gerardo Almaguer)

ABA’s GP Solo Magazine was kind enough to publish on their Jan./Feb. 2012 issue a brief article of mine on why doing pro bono work is not only good for the soul, but also good for business. And it includes a picture of El Santo, Mexico’s most-famous wrestler.

Here is the text:

The Good Fight is Good Business

El Santo (Spanish for “The Saint”) was Mexico’s most famous masked professional wrestler and one of its biggest cultural icons from his professional debut in the 1940s until his death in 1984. He was also a big movie and comics star, fighting against vampires, monsters, zombies and foreign secret agents. The legend of El Santo is still alive in Mexico. Yet El Santo was no Saint: he made his rivals suffer on the ring and in his movies and comics, and his character was often portrayed as a jet–setter living the nightlife. 

Like El Santo, I am no Saint. I am a solo practicing immigration and Mexican law in Houston, TX. And although I performed many hours of pro bono work, it was not pure altruism. In the process of undertaking these many (many) hours of  pro bono service, I received tangible and intangible benefits.

There are many reasons to do our share of work pro bono public (for the good of the public): giving back to society, helping the needy, making an impact on the lives of the recipients of our pro bono efforts, and, in the words of Jack Eisenstein, a fellow member of the ABA’s SoloSez e–mail listserve, “that fuzzy feeling you get from helping people and using your skill set for the forces of good.”

I would add one more motivation to the list: It is good for business. And I don’t mean as a bragging tool (the way some firms use it) but as a source of experience, networking, referrals and goodwill among recipients of the pro bono service.

I do most of my pro bono work through the Consulate General of Mexico in Houston. I sometimes give workshops on immigration law to Mexican nationals on the premises of the Consulate, and I regularly offer legal orientation to the public (also in the Consulate building) on immigration and Mexican law matters.  This commitment to the community serves my professional practice in several ways.

What do you get for your practice?

  • A source of referrals and goodwill. Pro bono work is a great, free marketing tool. Pro bono clients are generally thankful for the attorney that listened to them and offered a piece of advice, and most of them will recommend you with family and acquaintances who need a lawyer.
  • Some paying clients. Some of those who do not qualify for free representation under the guidelines of the host organization or need help beyond the scope of the pro bono service offered may retain your services.
  • Practice opportunities. Some of the most challenging cases I had to study came from pro bono clients. On occasion, the complexity calls for study and creative thinking for finding a viable solution.
  • Access to more experienced attorneys. It is likely that other lawyers working at the same or similar institution where you do your pro bono will be more than willing to share knowledge and advice. This may prove more valuable to new lawyers, but it is sure to be helpful to more seasoned attorneys as well.

Doing pro bono work is a win–win for all parties involved: The public gets quality legal guidance from a committed professional; the host organization fulfills its goals; and we, the lawyers offering our time and talents make a difference one client at a time.

Once you decide to do some type of pro bono work, how do you get started?

  1. Define what type of pro bono service you would like to sign up for: a project directly in your practice area, one involving a type of law you may be interested in developing later, or even a collaboration in an area la law you had a passion for but never developed for varied reasons.
  2. Research organizations in your area that regularly work with attorneys doing pro bono work: local bar associations, charities, law schools, NGOs. Then think outside the box (e.g., consulates are always in need of pro bono lawyers willing to assist their nationals). The ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service has an extensive, state–by–state, directory of pro bono programs (130 institutions are listed as of August 30, 2011), and is available at
  3. Make a plan that includes an estimate of pro bono hours you are willing to put in. Do not overreach. Beyond all the positives of pro bono work, we still have to make a living.
  4. Approach your target organization. Ask for their mission, rules and requirements, support and expectations. Announce your goals and needs.
  5. Start your pro bono service. Commit and deliver. Be ready to immerse yourself in a rewarding and enriching journey.

Pro bono work is good for the soul, good for business, good for society, and good for the recipient. And sainthood is not a requirement.

You can read The Good Fight is Good Business here.

Thank you, GP Solo Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Allen, Ass’t Director and Issue Editor Joshua Paulin, and Editor Robert Salkin.

Mexico’s SCJN: Unconstitutional and Discriminatory to Exclude Naturalized Citizens from being Prosecutors, Clerks and Investigators in Mexico City

10 01 2012
Plenary Room. SCJN en banc sessions are held here.

Plenary Room. SCJN en banc sessions are held here.

The Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación (SCJN), Mexico’s highest court, ruled on Monday that three articles of the Organic Law of Mexico City’s Attorney General’s Office (LOPGDF, Ley Orgánica de la Procuraduría General de Justicia del Distrito Federal) unconstitutionally barred Mexicans by naturalization from becoming public prosecutors (Agentes del Ministerio Público), prosecutor’s clerks (oficial secretario del ministerio público) and prosecutor’s investigator (agente de la policía de investigación). The case was initiated as an action of unconstitutionality (acción de inconstuticionalidad) by the Procuradora General de la República, Mexico’s Attorney General.  Good job, SCJN!

The SCJN en banc was one vote short from unanimity (10-1). The transcript of Monday’s session shows that the Ministros considered the rule to be discriminatory and beyond any reasonable purpose. Ministro José Ramón Cossío Díaz reminded the Court that the constitutional test rests on whether the discrimination serves a valid purpose, and that the case at hand did not.

The Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (CPEUM, Mexico’s federal constitution) does limit naturalized citizens from being appointed or elected to some public posts. Naturalized citizens in Mexico cannot be President (only Mexicans by birth, son or daughter of Mexican mother or father), congressperson, senator, cabinet member, Ministro of the SCJN, Attorney General, among other public positions. But in those cases, at least theoretically, the discrimination serves a valid purpose (and the exception is on the text of the constitution itself); extending the rule to prosecutors, their clerks and investigators does not.

The SCJN got it right once more. Naturalized citizens generally enrich and strengthen the fabric of a nation; many countries – like the United States – have a long-standing tradition of welcoming new citizens. Mexico may not be a destination for naturalization as prolific as other places yet, but it surely gets the benefit of having new citizens by will (or, as this blogger elegantly puts it, citizens by conviction); I happen to know a fine example: an extraordinary Mexican by naturalization that makes the life of Central Mexico brighter after moving there some years ago after successfully practicing law in the Midwestern United States.

New Bill to Repeal Current Federal Code of Criminal Procedure: Federal Oral Trials in Mexico Ad Portas!

30 09 2011

Courtroom in Chihuahua, Mexico

Last week Mexican President Felipe Calderon introduced a bill in the Cámara de Diputados  repealing the current Código Federal de Procedimientos Penales (CFPP), Mexico’s Federal Criminal Procedure Code, and substituting with a new code that will allow the country to transition towards the new Criminal Justice System based in oral trials.

Article 20 of the Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (Political Constitution of the Mexican United States, CPEUM) already mandates oral criminal trials, and the country is in a transition period.

The Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación (SCJN), Mexico’s highest court, already has oral, televised sessions. Some states in Mexico-like Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon-also have oral trials for criminal matters.

President Calderon’s bill, if enacted, will implement the constitutional mandate in federal criminal cases.

The proposed new CFPP really is a watershed for criminal trials, developing an accusatory, adversarial system. The fundamentals of the code include:

  • Orality. The fundamental feature of the new system, as advanced by the proposed CFPP is that all hearing and proceedings must be done orally, not in writing
  • No ex parte communications with the court. Until now, ex parte communications are admissible, and even expected, to make up for the lack of direct contact of the judge with the cold, written process model in force; oral trials would allow the court to know the evidence first–hand, without the need to talk to the parties individually
  • Technological media will be used to record proceedings, notify parties and admit evidence. E–filing will be available at some point
  • Non-prosecution cases (no ejercicio de la acción penal) can be accessed by the public. Up until now, Access to investigations is limited to the authorities, the accused, their victims and representatives
  • To highlight the adversarial nature of the new system, only evidence offered by the parties can be considered by the courts. Until now, judge can introduce evidence under certain circumstances to better clarify the case
  • Only licensed attorneys can represent a defendant as their defender. It may sound like an obvious proposition, but until now, both attorneys and a “trusted person” (persona de confianza) who is not authorized to practice law can defend an accused in court
  • Judges can assist neither the prosecutor nor the defendant on their shortcomings. Until now, the courts can make up for the deficiencies of the defendant. If enacted, the new CFPP will treat all parties as true adults
  • The new federal criminal procedure has the following stages:
    • Initial investigation, that goes from receiving the complaint until the exercise of the criminal action (ejercicio de la acción penal) with a court
    • Process per se, with the following sub–steps:
      • De control previo, (of previous control), that goes from the time when defendant is under the court’s custody, until the auto de vinculación a proceso (AVP, writ of suject to process)
      • De investigación formalizada (of formalized investigation), from notification to defendant of the AVP until expiration of the period to formulate the accusation
      • Intermediate, from the formal accusation until the writ of initiation of oral trial
      • Oral trial, that goes from the notice of initiation of oral trial until sentencing
  • Second instance (appeal, etc.)
  • The new code calls for 2 different judges to handle the cases:
    • The juez de control (judge of control), that resolves all provisional measures before the oral trial, and
    • The juez de juicio oral (judge of oral trial), that would control the trial hearings where evidence will be offered, and afterwards will decide on the merits of the case
    • Judges can have jurisdiction over a defendant for security reasons: if it is too risky to have a defendant in a particular area or jail, the case can be transferred to a different federal judge
    • Novelties in evidentiary issues:
      • Evidence can only be introduced at the oral trial
      • Courts are free to give weight to evidence at discretion (as long as it is justified)
      • Evidence obtained in violation of human rights is void. CFPP introduces the Mexican “fruit of the poisoned tree” theory, with limitations similar as those developed in US courts
      • Wiretaps by one of the parties to a communication are valid
      • Evidence obtained in undercover operations are legit
      • Parties can stipulate on non–controverted probatory issues (acuerdos probatorios)
      • Sentence is imposed after a post–conviction hearing
      • Legal entities (corporations, etc.) would be criminally liable for actions of its members
      • The new accusatory, oral system would require more court time for each case; the system could not work out without effective options to terminate proceedings in an anticipated way, without the need to go through all steps of the process. The new CFPPwould include the following options to achieve this goal:
        • Reparation agreement: in some cases, the defendant may execute a reparation agreement with the victim that includes undoing the wrong, and upon the court’s authorization, could avoid criminal liability
        • Simplified process: the defendant, upon admission of guilt and guaranteeing reparations for the victim, can get its punishment reduced up to 25%. It only applies for crimes with terms of imprisonment of no more than 4 years, for crimes of low social impact.
        • Conditional suspension of the process: another option for the defendant, subject to the victim’s approval, admission of guilt and requiring guarantee of reparation, conditional suspension of the process is available for most crimes with a punishment of more than 4 years of prison; this option suspends the process between 1-3 years. If the defendant is successful in following–up with the suspension for the period determined by the court, his case will be dismissed with prejudice, and the criminal action would extinguish; in this case, civil liability may subsist regardless
        • Abbreviated process is available upon request of the prosecution when defendant admits guilt, in all crimes that do not qualify for simplified process or conditional suspension of the process. Victim’s approval is required. The incentive for the defendant: up to 25% of punishment can be reduced
        • Victims are granted many rights, some already in the current CFPP, some also in the CPEUM:
          • Victims would be able to exercise a private criminal action (acción penal por particulares), fundamentally changing the perennial monopoly of the criminal action historically held by prosecutors
          • They can oppose to the simplified process and the abbreviated process
          • Non–Mexican victims will get assistance in immigration matters

Not all Strange Laws are Unconstitutional: The Case of Fixed Price of Books in Mexico, as Ordered by Law

1 09 2011

Less "FACE" and more "BOOK." Gandhi Bookstore, Mexico.

Librerías Gandhi is a bookstore chain in Mexico, famous for their good service and smart advertising campaigns (as illustrated by the image below). I loved going to their original location in Coyoacán while in law school in Mexico City. Since 2008, Gandhi cannot, by law, offer discounts in the price of most books, or charge more than the price fixed by editors or importers.

Articles 22 and 24 of the Ley de Fomento para la Lectura y el Libro (Law that Promotes Reading and Books) orders editors and importers to set a unique price for each not only acceptable, but mandatory. And sellers cannot charge more for the book, ever. And cannot sell for less either, within the first 18 months of publication. (The law provides for an exception: it is OK to give a discount if the buyer is the government, a public library or an educational institution.)

The rationally behind the law is that if let open to the market forces, supply and demand would only benefit big bookstores—normally found at big cities—in detriment of small towns and small book stores. The ultimate result should be, according to the law, to ease access to book ownership to everybody. None of that has happened so far, as the invisible hand of the market is known for its stubbornness.

COSTCO Mexico also sells books (although it is not its primary business). COSTCO, we all know, bases its sales model in offering discounted prices to their members, and resented the legal restrain on moving down the prices of books sold at their stores. COSTCO MX challenged the law was initiated via an Amparo trial, that was ultimately decided by the Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación (SCJN), Mexico’s highest court.

The SCJN ruled today in a divided 6-5 majority decision that a law requiring book editors and importers fixing a unique price for books neither promotes monopolies (which are prohibited by the Constitution) nor violates fundamental rights of commerce and equality, according to a SCJN’s press release. Or read the court transcript.

Weird law. But the issue before the SCJN was whether it promoted a monopoly, and the answer was in the negative. So be known: at least in Mexico, strange ≠ unconstitutional.

Mexico’s Supreme Court: Members of the Military Can Be Tried in Civilian Courts for Crimes that Violate Human Rights of Civilians (Not in Military Court)

12 07 2011

SCJN: OK for Civilian Ct. to Try Members of the Military for Crimes vs. Civilians

The Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación (SCJN), Mexico’s highest court, decided today that cases involving violations of human rights of civilians by members of the military can be tried in civilian courts—and not in military courts, as has been the practice until now. Well done, SCJN!

The SCJN specifically stated that the change in judiciary posture was made in execution and in deference to the Inter–American Court of Human Rights (IACHR)’ 2009 recommendation on the case of Mr. Rosendo Radilla. (Mr. Radilla was a local activist in Guerrero on the 1970s. He was arrested at a military checkpoint in 1974 and was never seen again.)

Article 57of the Code of Military Justice indicates on its previous to last paragraph that crimes involving both civilians and members of the military–like the Radilla case, and like the killing of civilians in military checkpoints in 2011, military members should be tried in military court.

On November 29, 2009, the Inter-American Court ordered Mexico to implement Constitutional and legislative reforms in matters of military jurisdiction, including the amendment of the above–mentioned article 57; President Felipe Calderon introduced a bill on the Mexican Senate in October of 2010, to comply with international treaties and the recommendation of the Inter-American Court, but Congress has failed to pass the amendments. The SCJN stood up to the plate to conform with the international tribunal’s decision.

Ministro Jose Ramón Cossío Díaz defined that the heart of the Inter–American Court’s sentence asks that cases of violations of human rights of civilians by members of the military should be tried in civilian–and not military–courts.

The SCJN’s decision is correct at least by 3 reasons:

  1. It reiterates Mexico’s respect for int’l law, int’l human rights, and the weight of sentences by int’l tribunals. This is congruent and consistent with Mexico´s own position with other countries in similar issues, like its stance with the United States’s violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and of the International Court of Justice judgment regarding 52 Mexican nationals on death row in the US, as exemplified last week before and after the execution of Humberto Leal in Huntsville, TX (violations by geopolitical divisions of a country are imputed to the country itself) (The Washington Post published an editorial urging the US Congress to act on the issue).
  2. It gives transparency to criminal proceedings involving members of the military and civilian victims by taking the cases out of the barracks, and into the judiciary branch.
  3. The resolution hopefully will narrow discretion of the military in its day-to-day operations in civilian life, in the context of the war against organized crime declared by President Calderon.