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Cruz Reynoso honored as a ‘legal giant’

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

Cruz Reynoso

As a child, Cruz Reynoso thought it was unfair that the mail carrier’s route ended just two blocks short of his poor Orange County barrio. His parents and neighbors had to trudge more than a mile into town just to pick up their mail.

So the middle school-aged boy, who would someday become the first Latino to serve on California’s Supreme Court, did something about it. He penciled out a petition, collected signatures from all over the barrio and successfully appealed to the U.S. Postmaster General in Washington D.C. for rural mail delivery.

That early success, Reynoso says now, helped fuel his determination to keep “doing things that needed to be done.”

Last month, Reynoso, now 78, was awarded the State Bar’s Bernard E. Witkin Medal for his “significant contributions to the quality of justice and legal scholarship” in California. The medal, established in 1993, is presented each year to “those legal giants who have altered the landscape of California jurisprudence.”

Known as a civil rights champion, Reynoso has worked as a lawyer, community organizer, law professor, legal services program director, appellate court justice and state Supreme Court justice. He has served three California governors and four U.S. presidents. In 2000, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his “compassion and work on behalf of the downtrodden.”

“Justice Reynoso has been a champion on the side of providing full access to justice to all throughout his career,” said former State Bar President Holly Fujie. “This medal simply celebrates his unfaltering commitment to the justice system and his extraordinary efforts to obtain equal rights for all of us.”

One of 11 children raised in a family of farmworkers, Reynoso was introduced to segregation, discrimination and other injustices at an early age. He once watched a police officer kick his father. He spent his childhood summers picking fruit in the San Joaquin Valley, once becoming too exhausted and dehydrated to move, and once facing a traumatic delay in the entire family’s summer pay.

But from early on, Reynoso also tried to make a difference. As a teenager, he once stood up for two boys barred from a service club-sponsored middle school dance because they were Mexican. Reynoso later tracked down the club’s officers to complain and had his first experience of being asked to leave someone’s office. “They weren’t happy to hear from me,” he recalls. “On the other hand, I never heard of a segregated dance after that.”

By the end of high school, Reynoso was convinced that maybe he could “do some good” as a lawyer. And after earning a bachelor’s degree at Pomona College in Claremont and spending two years in the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, he headed for UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. He was the only Latino in his 1958 graduating class.

“I had never met a Latino lawyer,” said Reynoso, whose sole ambition was to practice law in a small town. He and his wife chose El Centro in California’s Imperial Valley, where he built up a private practice and also helped negotiate improvements to the poor, predominantly Latino part of town. “The lesson I got from that,” he said, “was that quite often there’s just a lack of communication.”

In the mid-1960s, several governmental appointments took him to San Francisco, Sacramento and Washington, D.C. He served as assistant director of the state’s Fair Employment Practices Commission, then as staff secretary to Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. He also worked as associate general counsel to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In 1968, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a pioneering nonprofit legal services program for the rural poor, recruited Reynoso and quickly elevated him to executive director. It was a highlight of his career. At CRLA, he says, he saw firsthand what a difference lawyers can make. “We made a lot of law and protected a lot of people,” he recalls.

With Reynoso at the helm, CRLA took on cases that stopped the placement of non-English speaking Latino students in classes for the “mentally retarded” based on their low English-only test scores; that invalidated a policy requiring young children to work in agriculture as a condition of eligibility for welfare benefits; that forced the federal government to begin hearings that led to a ban on the pesticide DDT; and that prevented then-Gov. Ronald Reagan from slashing some $210 million in funding from California’s Medi-Cal program.

Jose Padilla, CRLA’s current executive director, credits Reynoso with providing “a legacy of leadership” and setting an example for other Latinos.

Padilla, the son and grandson of farm workers, still recalls the revered “Attorney Reynoso” from his childhood in Imperial Valley. As the only Spanish-speaking attorney in the valley, Reynoso gained a reputation for being a disarmingly humble “person of his word” who even dispensed “legal aid” from his home. And he was known, Padilla says, as someone who could mend strife as well — taking a group of picketers outside his office to lunch on one occasion and, on another, taming an unruly crowd at a town meeting by lecturing them on the example they were setting for their children.

“He also taught me that you never ‘retire’ from justice work,” Padilla said. “Among his pursuits, he continues to be a voice for those in poverty.”

Early in his career, Reynoso saw himself as an unlikely candidate for a judicial appointment. But in 1976, he became the first Latino appointed to a California Court of Appeal. Six years later, he made history again as the first Latino appointed to the state Supreme Court.

Reynoso brought a new perspective to the high court. In one instance, for example, his experiences as a lawyer for Spanish-speaking clients played a role. At issue was whether a non-English-speaking defendant had the constitutional right to an interpreter during his trial. Reynoso stressed the due process importance of having the accused understand the proceedings, and then described how difficult it had been for him to represent such clients and translate testimony for them at the same time. “It was very difficult for me as a lawyer to both listen to the witnesses and respond to my client,” he recalls. The Supreme Court ruled that such defendants do have the right to an interpreter in court — and the ruling became law.

Then, in 1986, Reynoso, Chief Justice Rose Bird and fellow Associate Justice Joseph Grodin all failed to win confirmation at the polls following an intense, high-profile campaign against them. Reynoso briefly returned to private practice, then joined the UCLA School of Law faculty.

Other highlights of Reynoso’s 50-year career include an 11-year stint as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and service on the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the California Postsecondary Education Commission. In 2001, Reynoso joined the UC Davis School of Law as the inaugural holder of the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality.

These days, Reynoso, who recently remarried and has four children and 17 grandchildren, remains a professor emeritus at UC Davis. Last fall, he was tapped to serve on a justice and civil rights agency review team to assist President-elect Barack Obama in his transition to the White House. And currently, he serves on the leadership council of California Forward, a bipartisan organization seeking to transform state government “through citizen-driven solutions.”

Describing himself as an “operational optimist,” Reynoso says he has “long lamented” those who work tirelessly on a particular issue for a year or two and then cease all efforts. He stresses the importance of trying to lead a balanced life and not giving up. “Particularly with tough social or legal issues,” he says, “persistence is half the battle.”

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