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Justice by Paperwork: A Day in the Life of a Court Scribe in Bourbon Mexico City

Michael C. Scardaville
Journal of Social History
Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 2003), pp. 979-1007
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3790360
Page Count: 29
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Justice by Paperwork: A Day in the Life of a Court Scribe in Bourbon Mexico City
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Abstract

This essay describes a typical day for a court scribe in Bourbon Mexico City in order to evaluate the prevailing scholarly view of criminal Judicial administration in the viceregal capital and the nature of the late colonial state. Historians and nineteenth century critics have asserted that the Bourbon state embraced oppressive criminal legal practices in Mexico City as a means of controlling popular groups and upholding public order. Based on an analysis of over 7,000 criminal cases, this study demonstrates that in spite of expanding poverty, a burgeoning caseload, and growing fear crime in the rapidly-growing city, the colonial legal system routinely adhered to standards of due process, and the courts systematically extended procedural safeguards to all of the accused, regardless of their social position. The daily operation of the criminal justice system, as demonstrated in the procedural work of the scribe and in the flexibility and moderation of the relatively autonomous magistrates, shaped popular notions of the state and thereby became one of the means through which public authority was sustained in late colonial Mexico City. Ultimately, this study questions the claim that the so-called absolutist Bourbon colonial state exercised judicial power in an arbitrary or capricious manner.

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