Free Labor and the Federal Judiciary, 1875–1910

that there might be in state laws.”25 It was a strong declaration for the supremacy of the federal constitution over state laws, one the Supreme Court adopted in its unanimous affirmance on the basis of the obvious violation of Articles 17 and 18. The Court reiterated statements about Gómez’s liberating himself from “masked slavery,” as well as the district court’s justification for applying the Law of December 14, 1882, to construe liberally Gómez’s petition, since he was obviously an uneducated agricultural laborer.26

In the amparo of Crescencio Concepción, the federal judiciary again made explicit references to debt peonage in Tabasco.27 Both the supreme and federal district courts doubted the version of facts submitted by the political prefect, who had justified Concepción’s arrest by calling his conduct scandalous. The district court wrote that evasiveness typified reports of authorities detaining “indebted servants” (sirvientes adeudados). It also held that the state law of June 1874, on which the local authorities had relied to press the laborer, was patently unconstitutional:

In this state the existence of the circumstances claimed here is very frequent, as a basis for the zealous pursuit and apprehension by the authorities of servants called indebted, whose condition differs in nothing from that of slaves, with the end of sending them to work against their will and without fair compensation, when they leave their employment since they no longer wish to continue working. Their legal basis is the local law of June 15, 1874, whose unconstitutionality cannot be doubted; and further, as is known, the same authorities, when an amparo is requested against these acts of theirs, write in their reports if not in brevity then at least with obscurity, with the consequence that it is difficult to discover the constitutional violations for which they are responsible.28

Unanimously affirming the district court’s amparo order, the Supreme Court alluded to its language approvingly.

In the amparo of Felipe Aguirre, the laborer filed his petition in the state of Coahuila but challenged the state of Nuevo León’s law that made leaving an employer without repaying him a fraudulent act and which had been applied against him when he was detained in the first state.29 The federal district court made a strong pronouncement of federal supremacy and of the unconstitutionality of the state law:

Whereas: if according to the laws of the state of Nuevo León . . . it is classified as the offense of fraud . . . such a classification cannot be entertained, for being contrary to the prescriptions of the cited Art. 17, and encompassed by Art. 126 of the Constitution, which this, the laws of Congress . . . and all of the conventions made with the President, are the supreme law of the entire Union; the Judges must conform with the Constitution, laws and treaties despite the disposition that can be contrary in the states; the rulings are numerous which grant the amparo in cases like the present one.30

The Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s ruling, citing Articles 5, 16, and 17. It did not elaborate further an argument premised on the supremacy of federal law, besides in effect incorporating the district court’s comments into its opinion. Granting the amparo did signify the prevalence of federal over state law on behalf of the petitioner.

In the amparo of José Corralito, the complainant, a debt peon on the Buena Vista hacienda in Tlaxcala, left it to go to work for another hacienda, defaulting on his employment contract.31 The first employer complained to the local mayor, who jailed Corralito to pressure him to fulfill his contract. The federal judge stressed that Corralito had been arrested as a fugitive peon while working for his second employer under the state law that sanctioned debt peons. Corralito had defied it, thereby giving rise to the mayor’s accusation that he had become disrespectful and disorderly. The district court applied Article 5. The high court affirmed the lower court’s decision. As in the case of Aguirre, its judgment largely rested on the holding of the federal judge and the supremacy of the federal constitution over state law.

The opinion in the amparo of Evaristo Luna is lengthier than most and presents enough detail of the underlying contract to give a sense of the legal elements of the employment relationship in the southeastern state of Campeche.32 Luna had accumulated a debt of 247 pesos when his employer Calderón terminated his employment. Luna offered to repay his ex-employer at the rate of 25 pesos a month, but according to Luna, Calderón tried to assign him, not the debt, to another employer. Luna refused to comply with this intended arrangement. Calderón then denounced him to a local trial judge for fraud, on the supposition that Luna was going to depart from the area while still indebted. The judge found him guilty under different provisions of the state penal code for fraud and had him jailed. Luna then turned to the federal district court for an amparo.33

The employment contract (contrato de servicios personales) stipulated the accrued debt, identified the place of work (the estate), the daily rate of pay, and additional task rates. The contract specified that Luna could not separate himself from his employment without liquidating his debt.34 The fiscal applied contractual principles to find it nearly determinative that Calderón, not Luna, had terminated the contract, contending that as a consequence Luna was free to elect how he would repay Calderón. In addition, the fiscal suggested that the local judge had violated Article 18, because none of the articles of the penal code cited were apposite. The fiscal believed Article 5 also applied: Luna was jailed because he had refused to work for another employer.

The federal judge granted the amparo on the basis that the local authority had violated Article 17: the penal code did not apply, Luna’s debt was a civil one, and he had been jailed out of the fear he would abscond. The federal judge did not find sufficient proof that Luna had been jailed to pressure him to work for another employer; hence Article 5 was inapplicable. The Supreme Court agreed with the judge when it affirmed his decision.

The Supreme Court did continue to apply Article 5, however, and granted amparos in at least five more instances between 1881 and 1893 in claims arising in the states of Campeche,35 Tlaxcala,36 Chihuahua,37 and Tamaulipas.38 The situations out of which the cases arose varied. Three involved groups of workers, but the judiciary regards this litigation as involving individuals not associations of laborers. In the case of José Reyes Ramírez, the federal judiciary construed Article 5 expansively, to cover a minor who had been turned over to an agricultural employer by his mother. After an examination of applicable law, including American law, the Court held that the employer could not force the minor to work. The Court also ruled for Julio Montañez, who refused to follow through with an employment contract to go to Yucatán from Tamaulipas.39


In the late 1890s, the Supreme Court changed its stance toward the litigation of workers alleging coercive labor practices. The first published denial of a laborer’s amparo invoking Article 5 or 17 may have happened in 1899, in a case from Tabasco.40 Alfonso Benito alleged that his apprehension was for the purpose of forcing him to work on an estate. The district court denied the amparo, and the Supreme Court affirmed unanimously: “As the authorities designated responsible for the violative acts denied their occurrence, and the complainant in contrast did not submit any proof that substantiated the violation of rights of which he complains, there is no basis on which to predicate a ruling granting the amparo and therefore this is denied.”41 It is certainly conceivable that Benito did not submit any evidence on which the Court could base an affirmative ruling. But in previous cases coming out of Tabasco, the Court had noted the social realities and conditions that rendered it extremely difficult for the laborer to put together much of a case, scrutinizing local authorities’ pretexts. It is possible that in previous litigation the local authorities had lost sometimes because they acknowledged factual allegations asserted by the complainant, while trying to justify them under local laws or practices, and had consequently unwittingly given the Court some grounds on which to rule against them. In Benito the defendant authorities denied outright all of the complainant’s allegations. Local officials by 1899 might have learned better how to present their version in federal court.

As recently as six months before the ruling in Benito, the Supreme Court had concurred with the federal judge in Tabasco granting an amparo to Antonio Salvador.42 He petitioned the federal district court because the Macuspana political prefect had ordered him taken to the finca of San Diego “to furnish personal services against his will.” The rationale of the decision granting the amparo hinged on the question of the extent of the jefe político’s authority. The prefect indisputably had intervened in the employment and contractual relationship. The Court found this illegitimate, since it was outside the scope of the prefect’s duties.43

After 1899, nevertheless, it was almost as probable that the Court would deny rather than grant a request for an amparo by a laborer alleging coercion. Of the seventeen cases decided in the period between 1899 and 1910 and examined here, the Court denied eight and granted nine amparos. Is there a pattern to its decisions? As the opinions remain generally brief and nearly conclusory, it is difficult to probe the Court’s reasoning. It is noteworthy that the Court never denied a petition if it found an infringement of Article 5 or 17. That is, the rejection of laborers’ amparo petitions did not result from legal defenses such as time limitations, “mootness,” or claims of immunity. Denials of relief follow from the failure to prove the allegations, according to the opinions, as is the case in Benito.

The amparo petitions arise from disputes in the states of Tabasco, Campeche, San Luis Potosí, Chiapas, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, Nuevo León, Veracruz, and the federal territory of Tepic. The eight denials are spread across the country, too: Tabasco, San Luis Potosí, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Tepic. They are issued until February 1908. The denials are normally by unanimous vote. The opinions evidence greater preoccupation with the parties’ satisfaction of the new federal procedural code promulgated in 1897.44 The high court’s focus on procedural and evidentiary conditions, moreover, surpasses that of the lower federal courts.

The amparo of Ramón Quej illustrates the trend toward framing cases largely in procedural terms.45 Quej cited Articles 5 and 17, as well as Article 16, because the political prefect of Campeche’s capital had sentenced him and his wife to thirty days’ imprisonment or a 15 peso fine for refusing to work for a private employer. The Court granted the amparo, but not on the grounds of the alleged constitutional violations.

The political prefect in his report wrote that he had jailed Quej after he became unruly when the former had sought to reconcile the latter with his employer. In the Court’s opinion, the prefect had failed to prove satisfactorily his justification for jailing Quej:

If the executing authority dictated a prison sentence . . . he did not prove in the necessary time the existence of the infraction, nor remit a copy of the order that should have been issued for the imposition of the fine in conformance with the law, nor did he prove that he had issued said order; therefore the imposition of the fine does not appear justified.46

The Court’s ruling then reviewed the law cited by the prefect:

In effect the penal code of the state, 1888 edition, in art. 951, establishes that the lack of respect for an authority, attributed to Quej, shall be punished by reference to the applicable, legal or regulatory police dispositions, and that regulation is the one of January 26, 1895, whose art. 112 was violated, according to the political prefect.47

It might have seemed that the prefect had been able to justify legally Quej’s incarceration. But the Court persisted with its analysis:

In effect, in conformance with Art. 95 of the cited penal code, violations must be punished by the governmental authority or by justices of the peace . . . and this code, after establishing in Art. 66 that jurisdiction of the violations corresponds to the justices of the peace or political prefects, established in Art. 631 that all the facts and sentence should be consolidated in one act.48

This had not been done, so the opinion ended with a critique:

That in effect . . . when it is not proven with the issued act in the referenced terms the legality of the submissions of the political authority, the infractions that justified the imposition of the fine do not seem to be proven, since there does not exist a document that proves the offensive act and that a penal law or regulation has been infringed; thus lacking in the absolute justification for the acts of the authority designated as responsible, the amparo should be conceded.49

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