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When we think of influential figures in the legal field, the names of Hispanic lawyers often stand out for their remarkable contributions to the world of law, justice, and civil rights. From groundbreaking judges to passionate advocates, these individuals have left an indelible mark on history. In this article, we'll explore the lives and legacies of 10 remarkable Hispanic lawyers who have made a difference.
Manuel J. Ruiz, Jr. was the first Hispanic attorney to argue before the United States Supreme Court in Buck v. California, 343 U.S. 99 (1952). Ruiz graduated from USC Law School and was admitted to the California bar in 1930. Due to racial prejudice at the time, he was unable to secure a job post-graduation and opened his own firm focusing on international law. In 1951, he represented taxicab drivers who were arrested for driving without a permit in San Diego County, California taking the case to the United States Supreme Court in Buck v. California. In 1964, Ruiz was appointed the National Chairman for the Hispanic Division of the Republican National Committee and later served as legal counsel for War on Poverty, a non-profit aimed as tackling urban and rural poverty. In 1970, President Richard Nixon appointed Ruiz to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights where they later released a report of police misconduct and discriminatory legal practices that impacted the Hispanic community.
Reynaldo Guerra Garza is regarded as the first Mexican-American appointed to a federal court. Garza received his Bachelor of Laws (comparable to today’s Juris Doctorate) in 1939 and went on to serve in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1961, he was appointed to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas becoming the first Mexican-American appointed to a federal court. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter attempted to appoint Garza as the U.S Attorney General making him the first Hispanic to serve in the role. However, Garza turned down the appointment and was instead was confirmed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals where he served for the remainder of his career.
Raúl Héctor Castro was the first Mexican-American to serve as the governor of Arizona. Before being elected Governor, Castro entered private practice and was elected the county attorney of Pima County, the first Mexican-American to hold the position. He remained in the position until being elected a Pima County Superior Court Judge. In 1964, Castro was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador and later to Bolivia, strengthening U.S. relations at a time of political instability. In 1974, he was elected Arizona Governor serving only 2 years before being appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina. Castro is best known for his formal style and perseverance.
Antonia Hernández is an advocate and recent president and CEO of the California Community Foundation. After graduation from law school, she worked on the landmark case Madrigal v. Quilligan, a medical ethics case focused on forced sterilization of Mexican-American women at a hospital in Los Angeles County. She later served as the first Latina staff counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee focusing on immigration, civil rights, and judicial nominations. In 1985, Hernández served as president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) serving in that role until 2004. She then joined the California Community Foundation, a non-profit focusing on strengthening Los Angeles communities. She served as their president and CEO, where she is credited with creating an immigration program and raising funds to support various programs in Los Angeles. She retired in early 2023.
Cruz Reynoso was the first Chicano Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court. He was the first Latino appointed to the California Court of Appeals before being nominated to the California Supreme Court in 1982. Prior to serving on the Court, Reynoso was director of the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), working to improve working conditions and labor rights for agricultural workers in California. While presiding on the California Supreme Court, Reynoso was championed environmental protections, individual liberties, and civil rights. After his controversial removal from the California Supreme Court in 1987, he entered private practice and in 1993 was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 2000, Reynoso was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, one of the highest civilian honors in the United States. This recognition highlighted his lifelong commitment to justice and civil rights.
Sonia Sotomayor, born in the Bronx, New York, is a trailblazing figure in American jurisprudence Sotomayor became the first Hispanic federal judge in New York State with her appointment to the Southern District of New York in 1991. In 2009, she became the first Hispanic justice and third woman on the nation’s highest court, the United States Supreme Court. Throughout her career, Justice Sotomayor has consistently championed justice, diversity, and civil rights. Her landmark decisions have had a profound impact on legal precedents, particularly in areas such as affirmative action in higher education, her advocacy for Fourth Amendment Rights in cases involving searches and seizures, criminal justice reform as it relates to racial disparities, and her opinions on voting rights and civil liberties.
Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Mayor of Los Angeles and a practicing attorney, has played a pivotal role in California politics and law. He began his career in the California State Assembly in 1994, earning the role of Speaker of the Assembly in 1998. After serving in the State Assembly, Villaraigosa represented the 14th District on the Los Angeles City Council before becoming Mayor. Villaraigosa was the first Latino to serve as Los Angeles Mayor in 130 years. During his time as Mayor, Villaraigosa championed Measure R, a half-cent sales tax increase that generated funding for transportation project. He worked to improve public safety, alleviate traffic congestion, and fund alternative transportation projects. Villaraigosa advocacy for education reform, with efforts to improve the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSE), supporting charter schools, and raising academic achievement levels for students through the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
Serving as the 80th Attorney General of the United States under President George W. Bush, Alberto Gonzales is the highest-ranking Hispanic American in executive government to date. Prior to serving as the Attorney General, Gonzales served as the Texas Secretary of State, a Texas Supreme Court Justice, and White House Counsel. In his role as White House Counsel and later Attorney General, Gonzales played an important role in the creation and implementation of post-9/11 policies including the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Beyond the firestorm of Guantanamo Bay, Gonzales faced additional controversy during his tenure, including allegations of politicization of the Justice Department and the firing of several U.S. attorneys, which led to his resignation in 2007.
Linda Sánchez is a U.S Representative for California’s 38th District and previous chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. She received her Juris Doctorate (J.D.) from UCLA School of Law where she was an editor of the Chicano-Latino Law Review. Sánchez was first elected to Congress in 2003 and in 2016 was elected by her colleagues to serve as the Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, becoming the first woman of color elected to a leadership position in Congress. During her time in politics, Sánchez has been a strong supporter of LGBTQ+ rights and equality, affordable healthcare for all, and workers’ rights. Additionally, her environmental advocacy has included supporting measures to combat climate change, investing in renewable energy, and protecting natural resources.
Tom Perez is the senior advisor to President Joe Biden and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Prior to his current role, Perez served as the United States Secretary of Labor, chair of the Democratic National Committee, and U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. While acting as the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Perez pushed for the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, overseeing the first hate-crime conviction in the United States. In 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Perez as the Secretary of Labor, leading to a contentious confirmation hearing and ending with the first cabinet member confirmation to receive a party-line vote. Perez was named a senior advisor to the president and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in June 2023.
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