Since the 1990s, the path to democracy in Mexico has been bumpy but encouraging with the passage of numerous electoral reforms and the end of decades of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). However, that progress is now under threat according to Professor of the Practice Amrit Singh, a human rights lawyer who joined Stanford Law School in March 2023 to launch and lead SLS’s new Rule of Law Impact Lab, which studies and uses legal tools to counter democratic decline around the world. A slew of anti-democratic maneuvers by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have attempted to roll back electoral reforms and impede the functioning of the Mexican judiciary, as Singh explains in this Q&A.
Soon after its launch earlier this year, the Rule of Law Impact Lab submitted an amicus brief to the Mexico Supreme Court on behalf of the Mexican Bar Association. The brief encouraged the court to uphold its role in protecting Mexico’s democracy and strike down President López Obrador’s so-called “Plan B,” legislation which sought to cripple Mexico’s highly regarded National Electoral Institute (INE). Going forward, the Impact Lab will deepen its work in Mexico and address Rule of Law challenges in other countries, focusing initially on Senegal, Poland, Hungary, and the United States.
Here, Singh discusses President López Obrador’s anti-democratic tactics and the crucial role she sees the Impact Lab playing in the future of global democracy.
Can you explain this project on Mexican democracy? What issues have you been confronting there?
We are partnering with the Mexican Bar Association on crucial aspects of the rule of law in Mexico. Our first project together concerned legislation known as “Plan B,” backed by President López Obrador and his party, Morena, that would have undermined the independence of the National Electoral Institute (INE), which organizes, implements, and monitors Mexican elections. Plan B was introduced after Plan A —a constitutional amendment targeting INE—failed to gather the required two-thirds majority in Congress.
INE is one of the most independent and highly regarded electoral commissions in the world. It filed a lawsuit against the Mexican Congress and the President, challenging the constitutionality of the “Plan B” legislation. The Lab here at Stanford Law School, along with the Mexican Bar Association, submitted an amicus brief to the Mexican Supreme Court in this constitutional challenge, underscoring the Court’s role in protecting Mexico’s democracy. It also described relevant international legal standards—including Mexico’s obligations to uphold democracy, the right to vote, and free and fair elections while ensuring the independence and adequacy of resources for bodies in charge of elections. Soon after, the Supreme Court struck down Plan B, finding the legislation unconstitutional on procedural grounds. So that was a win, but the President was far from done.
So the work that you and the SLS Lab did was successful. But that wasn’t the end of it, was it?
President López Obrador announced that he had a “Plan C”—to amend the constitution by securing, in the forthcoming June 2024 general election, a super-majority for Morena and its allies in both houses of parliament. Displeased with court decisions that sought to protect the rule of law, he moved to attack the federal judiciary, lambasting judges as corrupt and using his presidential bully pulpit to erode confidence in the judiciary. He publicly declared that judges should be elected by popular vote and that the federal judiciary’s budget should be cut by about 30 percent. Following Morena’s formal proposal to cut the budget, the Lab issued a joint public statement with the Mexican Bar Association calling on the Mexican Chamber of Deputies to reject the proposal to significantly reduce the federal judiciary’s budget. Our unified voice raised public awareness of the threat to judicial independence—the joint statement was featured in Mexico’s leading national newspapers, among other public fora. This is an example of the beginning of our work in Mexico. To have sustained impact in this challenging environment, we expect to stay engaged on rule of law issues there for some time.
What other assaults on the rule of law are you actively monitoring?
The Lab’s work is global in scope and focuses on three fundamental elements of democratic renewal: electoral integrity, judicial independence, and free expression. We are currently exploring work in Senegal, Poland, Hungary, and the U.S., among other countries, but where and how we ultimately end up engaging will depend on where we can add value—whether through litigation, legal research, documentation, and/or advocacy. Our aim is to work closely with domestic organizations around the world on these issues and to generate learning and comparative insights about what works and does not work for promoting democratic renewal.
Why is it important to have a Rule of Law Impact Lab at Stanford Law School?
Autocrats these days are not only eliminating domestic checks and balances, they are enlisting each other’s help. The forces of democratic decline are internationally coordinated—they are sharing ideas and supporting each other across national boundaries. For example, Hungarian proponents of “illiberal democracy” have celebrated their affinities with their counterparts in the United States and Brazil.
The central insight for this Lab is that there needs to be principled international support for the rule of law that counters this global democratic decline. We cannot rely on governments to enforce such a resistance by themselves. Even governments that purport to stand for the rule of law at times prioritize their own national political and economic objectives over democracy and the rule of law in other countries. Moreover, given the sweep of democratic decline around the world, few national governments can claim the moral high ground to preach to other governments about upholding democracy.
A university, and particularly a law school, is the ideal place for these efforts because we can use legal tools, based on credible, independent, non-partisan research, to uphold the rule of law. And by involving students in the Lab’s work, we are creating the next generation of lawyers and leaders who will carry the torch forward.
Countering democratic decline around the world is, admittedly, a lot of work. But this is the defining issue of our time, and the Lab fills an important gap. I don’t know of any other project like this one, that deploys transnational, multi-jurisdictional legal strategies to promote democratic renewal. This work is exciting because I think the Lab can make a real difference and have real impact over time.
Amrit Singh is Professor of the Practice of Law and founding Executive Director of the Rule of Law Impact Lab at Stanford Law School. A human rights lawyer, she has conducted strategic litigation, research, and advocacy on a broad range of rule of law and rights issues in the U.S. and globally. Prior to joining Stanford, Singh served as director of the Accountability Division at the Open Society Justice Initiative where she oversaw projects on numerous rule of law and human rights issues. She successfully litigated before the European Court of Human Rights cases seeking accountability for European government complicity in the CIA’s post-September 11, 2001, torture program. She successfully challenged Egypt’s emergency law as well as its torture and arbitrary detention practices before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Among other cases, she served as counsel in U.S. litigation seeking accountability for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.