"Justice as Checks and Balances: Indigenous Claims in the Courts of Colonial Mexico"
The centralization of conflict resolution and adjudication of justice are crucial elements of state formation. Yet, the state-building literature often ignores this key process. This article studies the monopolization of justice administration in the context of Spanish America using the historical example of the General Indian Court (GIC). The article argues that the development and decision-making process of this court can inform us more broadly about how the rule-of-law develops in a highly authoritarian context. This article proposes a theory in which centralized courts are used strategically to solve an agency problem, more specifically to limit the power of local elites and to monitor state agents. To curb these actors' power, the Spanish Crown allowed the Indigenous population to raise claims and have access to property rights. However, this access remained limited and subject to strategic considerations of the Crown. Based on my theory, I predict that a favorable ruling for the Indigenous population was more likely in cases that threaten to increase the local elite's power. I provide empirical evidence of the strategic use of the GIC with a mixed-methods approach, including paleographic transcriptions, human coding, and text analysis of a novel dataset of more than 30,000 judicial claims from the 16th to the 19th century. This article illustrates the conditions under which the rule of law can emerge in a context with a powerful ruler who has an interest in imposing limits to local powers and their potential predation of the general population. The article also highlights the endogenous factors behind the creation of colonial institutions and the importance of judicial systems in colonial governance.