California Bar Journal
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Avila named Loren Miller recipient
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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.

Joaquin AvilaIn 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.

 "In 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 politically excluded.

"It's very important that people become aware of what's going on," he said.