California Bar Journal
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Young lawyer hones reputation in civil rights arena

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At 34, Thomas Saenz is fast earning a reputation as one of the foremost civil rights attorneys in California. He has battled the state over the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and challenged the Los Angeles Unified School District earlier this year over its school construction policies.

Thomas SaenzIn recognition of his impressive record of fighting for Latino civil rights, Saenz last month received the Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public. The award, given by the California Young Law-yers Association, honors the memory of a young pro bono attorney who was slain in the 101 California St. massacre in San Francisco and recognizes service to the legal profession and the public and dedication to issues of concern to attorneys.

A graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School, Saenz is regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) in Los Angeles. He manages the office, which serves southern California, Nevada and Arizona, is its lead counsel in numerous federal court cases, and oversees a wide variety of litigation, appeals, consent decree monitoring, and public policy analysis in areas such as education, employment and immigrants’ rights.

Last year, MALDEF was instrumental in blocking the implementation of Prop. 187; when Saenz decided to cross-appeal the state’s desire to send the case to mediation, Gov. Davis dismissed the appeal. Prop. 187, approved by the voters in 1994, called for barring illegal immigrants from government services, including public education, welfare and non-emergency health care. Most of the major provisions of the measure were overturned by a federal district court judge, but the ruling was appealed by former Gov. Pete Wilson. Wilson left office before the case was argued, and Davis asked the court to submit the case to mediation.

This year, Saenz assisted in the filing of a major lawsuit to challenge the lack of school construction in overcrowded minority districts in urban Los Angeles. His strategy is to target the system under which bond monies are distributed on a first come, first serve basis rather than by need. “Thousands of Californians are both directly and indirectly affected by Tom’s work,” says Antonia Hernandez, MALDEF’s president and general counsel. “In particular, innumerable individuals are protected by the civil rights enforced through his litigation.”

In addition to his professional activities, Saenz is involved in numerous community groups, including the National Conference for Community and Justice and Califor-nia LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens).