News Column

Striving for ‘Critical Mass’

October 2001

By Rick Laezman, HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine

La Raza Lawyers Association of California works to strengthen Hispanic legal influence.

While California's growing Hispanic population is enjoying increased political and economic clout, it has yet to make comparable progress in legal circles. Hispanics account for more than 30 percent of the state's population but just 4 percent of its lawyers.

Enter La Raza Lawyers Association of California, which is dedicated to expanding Hispanic representation in all areas of the state judiciary, including judicial appointments, hiring in the legal profession, government positions, access to law firms, and legal aid to the indigent.

The group was established in 1969 following the formation of a Mexican American Bar Association in Los Angeles and La Raza Lawyers group in San Francisco. It now serves as an umbrella organization for local Hispanic lawyer groups throughout the state, boasting a membership of more than 2,000.

"If a court is entirely Anglo, they aren't going to understand a Latino's perspective," says La Raza president-elect Christopher Arriola, articulating his organization's motives. "This is a representative democracy. We can't have a group entirely excluded. We aren't interested in numerical matches. We want to reach critical mass."

Currently, La Raza is focusing on judicial appointments, for several reasons.
Over the last two years, the municipal courts of California have been consolidated into countywide superior courts. This has gradually eliminated a level of the judiciary accessible to aspiring Hispanic judges via local elections.

The restructuring also gives the governor more power over the composition of the state's courts. The chief executive now appoints members of the state supreme, appellate, and superior courts and has the option of allowing voters to decide how vacancies on the superior court are filled. The nature of politics dictates that the latter does not happen often, however. Judicial appointments are an important part of a governor's as well as a president's legacy.

What's more, many of the judges appointed by former Democratic Gov. Jerry
Brown, who were generally sympathetic to Hispanic issues, are now, more than 20 years later, eligible for retirement.

By all accounts, La Raza Lawyers has aggressively responded to these challenges. In August, the group celebrated the appointment of 16 California Hispanics to the bench 14 percent of all the judicial appointments for the entire month.

La Raza also works to affect the federal appointment process, although that is generally the purview of the Hispanic National Bar Association. Beyond appointment advocacy, the group's efforts include grassroots lobbying, such as community outreach and media campaigns, to educate Hispanics about the importance of influencing the process.

"We have to be proactive," says Mr. Arriola. "If we are not up front in the process, we won't be heard."

The group is now concentrating on the state Supreme Court vacancy resulting from Justice Stanley Mosk's death in June. After providing Gov. Gray Davis with a list of possible Hispanic candidates, La Raza was pleased to learn that one of the governor's four recommendations to the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission was Los Angeles federal judge Carlos Moreno. Some say he is the leading candidate.

"We think this position belongs to a Latino," says La Raza's current president, Tony Nevarez. He points out that the California Supreme Court has not had a Hispanic justice since Cruz Reynoso stepped down more than a decade ago.

Messrs. Nevarez and Arriola and the other leaders of La Raza say they are confident that Gov. Davis is listening and responsive to their concerns. In a letter addressed to the governor in July, the organization congratulated Mr. Davis for "making 9 percent of your appointments Latino thus far, the highest percentage in the last 20 years."

Still, the group is not about to rest on its laurels. Citing sobering statistics by way of explaining La Raza's tenacity, Mr. Arriola points out that Hispanics hold only 70 of 1600 superior court trial positions in California. Similarly, Hispanics hold just three of 105 state appellate court positions.

"There are no Latinas on the appellate courts in California, no Democrats and no Latinos north of Los Angeles," he says.

Mr. Arriola, who is a deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County, stresses that his organization is nonpartisan.

"We support both parties, but the reality is that 80 percent of Latinos are Democrats. Our only requirement is that we be a voice for the Latino community."

Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine

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