cies, we were attacking public entities, and the
moment you'd defeat one another bad policy would spring up," Avila
said. "Until we changed the actual method of election and made the
process more accessible to minorities, we really weren't going to be
making any major advances."
Created in 1977 to commemorate the bar's 50th
anniversary, the annual Loren Miller award is given to an attorney who
has demonstrated a long-term commitment to legal services and who
advocates for the disenfranchised.
In 1975, Avila's testimony before Congress
helped reauthorize the Voter Rights Act. As an example of the
system's inequities, he told of Latino activists in Texas who were
punished for holding voter registration drives and trying to solidify
the rights of their communities.
"In many cases people were afraid to speak out,
especially in smaller communities, because major employers would find
out who the troublemakers were and they'd either immediately lose
their jobs or be harassed," Avila said.
The following year, MALDEF selected Avila to head
its voting rights program. In the 1980s, he served as its president
and general counsel. He has handled about 60 major cases for the
organization and in his Los Angeles solo practice.
MALDEF is currently awaiting a decision in Ruiz
v. Santa Maria, a challenge to the Santa Maria City Council's
at-large electoral system in which Avila played a key role. No Latino
had ever been elected under the at-large system, even though the
ethnic group represents 45 percent of the city's population.
"If you don't have leadership at the local
level that reflects the community, you have a sense of political
alienation . . . things become more polarized."
This year, MALDEF, with Avila's assistance, is
promoting redistricting efforts based on new census data to ensure the
voting power of minorities and the poor are maximized.
"It's really a once-in-a-decade opportunity
to try to restructure the election districts so they don't operate
in essence to dilute minority strength," Avila said.
a worst-case scenario, the established political powers (won't) want
to take into account the growth of the Latino community in California.
What I'm afraid is going to happen is Latinos are going to be
"It's very important that people become aware
of what's going on," he said.