BUENOS AIRES — While democratic changes spread through Eastern Europe, San Francisco lawyer Steven Mayo is helping countries to reform their justice systems.
"The world seems to be involved in legal reform; people are demanding a greater role in justice systems," Mayo said during a recent visit to Buenos Aires.
"My feeling from my readings is that governments believe they cannot stay in power without giving a little," said Mayo.
In the last five years, Mayo, 31, has organized delegations of American lawyers and judges to give demonstrations of U.S.-style trials and to hold seminars in 22 South American and Asian countries. In the fall, he plans to go to Eastern Europe.
"I think the best export we have got in the states is our democratic institutions, and the basis of those institutions is our justice system," said Mayo, whose trips are funded in part by the U.S. State Department.
"Despite our faults, we have a system that works," Mayo said.
Mayo recently brought a delegation to Argentina at the invitation of the government.
"In Argentina, we cannot see trials; we cannot participate in trials. The witnesses don't even participate. All this adds up to a system that does not function," said Argentine Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo.
Six-and-a-half years after the military handed over rule to an elected civilian president, the Argentine Congress is considering opening courts to the public.
At present, virtually all legal proceedings in Argentina take place behind closed doors and are written rather than oral proceedings.
"I believe there is a very strict tie between how a justice system functions and how a democracy functions," said Ocampo.
"In Argentina, we have a tradition of not respecting the law, and that carries over to a lack of respect for political systems," Ocampo said.
Mayo's visiting delegations include men like California Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas and Los Angeles District Judge Matt Byrnes.
"If Argentina had a new kind of cataract surgery, we would want them to come to the United States and tell us about it. That is why we are here: We feel we have something that works, and we want to share it," Lucas said.
"The big advantage of the oral trial in the United States is that it is a transparent process--the public can see everything that is going on," Lucas said.
Mayo said he tries to reach the people watching and participating in the re-enactments of oral or jury trials.
"This is education through participation," Mayo said.
Juan Carlos Boscoscuro, 25, an Argentine law student watching the mock trial of California bank robber John Johnson, said the demonstration showed him how the system should work.
"This trial is about something extremely important," he said. "It means deciding whether we can participate in justice. It means trying to stop corruption."
Boscoscuro explained that under the current system, cases drag on for years. And judges, protected by closed doors, are easily bribed.
"If you have the money, you go free. If not, you spend years waiting for your trial," Boscoscuro said.
But Argentine reform efforts have met with criticism, especially, in this economically strapped country, over the cost.
In addition, most lawyers in Argentina have never cross-examined a witness or made an appeal and must learn oral arguing skills from scratch. Mayo says he expects to return to Argentina in a year to give a seminar on how to argue cases.
Other critics note that the government will be forced to build new courtrooms to house public trials, added expenditures that come when funds are so tight that justice workers bicker over paper and pencils.
Mayo said judicial reform is gaining ground in countries like the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, China and Japan.
Japan, which Mayo said now has a system of government-appointed judges with a near 98% conviction rate, is considering switching to jury trials.
"The people in Japan are saying, 'We want a little larger slice of the pie," said Mayo.