April 18, 2011

Latina Lawyers Before the Supreme Court

Maria Guadalupe Mendoza has published The Thirteen Known Latina Litigants Before the Supreme Court of the United States. Here is the abstract.

Never before has there ever been any attempt to collect the history and experience of Latino advocates before our nation’s highest court, and no one has ever been known to have answered the question of who was the first Latina to argue before the United States Supreme Court. In 1981, Judge Vanessa Ruiz of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals successfully argued Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, before the nation’s high court. For years, she was dubbed as one of the first women to have argued before the nation’s highest court after Justice O’Connor’s 1981 ascent to the Supreme Court. Then in 2009, I began working for her as a judicial law clerk, and I wondered if Judge Ruiz was one of the earlier women to argue before the high court, was she the first Latina to argue before the nation’s highest court? I turned to research, and though I could find the “first” to argue before the Supreme Court for many other communities within seconds of simple internet research - the first African American male, the first African American woman, the first Hispanic males, the first Asian American woman, the first woman - until now, there has been no information on Latina litigants before the nation’s high court.

Profoundly touched by the unavailability of any information as the “first” Hispanic woman to argue before the nation’s high court, I sought to discover who this remarkable woman was. In the course of researching the history of Latina advocates before the high court, I not only learned who the first known Latina to argue before the high court is, but I also learned that while the first Latinos to have argued before the Supreme Court has long been thought to be Carlos Cadena and Gustavo (“Gus”) Garcia - the lawyers of Hernandez v. Texas - the first known Latino to argue before the Supreme Court was really Mexican American activist and lawyer, Manuel J. Ruiz, Jr. He argued Buck v. California before the Supreme Court in 1951, three years before Gus Garcia and Carlos Cadena made their historic argument in Hernandez v. Texas, and a few decades before the Supreme Court would entertain an argument by a Latina. Manuel J. Ruiz, Jr.’s story as the first Latino to argue before the Supreme Court needs to be told, but recognizing that Latinas have never been identified as a community of Supreme Court litigators, this article opts for first introduce the known Latina litigants of the Supreme Court.

From 1950 to 2009, only thirteen known Latinas have argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. The first known Latina to argue before the United States, Miriam Naviera de Rodon, argued before the high court in 1975. A year later, Vilma Martinez, the first known Mexican American woman to appear before the Supreme Court, argued East Texas Motor Frieght Sys., v. Rodriguez, marking the last time the 1970s was known to entertain an appearance by a Latina advocate. Over the course of the 1980s, six Latinas are known to have litigated before the high court, and sadly, the 1990s only brought one known appearance a by Latina before the high court. From 2000 to 2009, four known Latinas have argued before the Supreme Court.

Before the Supreme Court, these thirteen Latinas took everything from criminal law, racial discrimination class actions, first amendment right to free exercise of religion, to pro bono housing discrimination claims to the highest court of lands. During their glorious argument, these women worked for civil right champions the Mexican American Legal Defense Educational Fund (“MALDEF”), for Stanford Law School, while others were in private practice and in the government. These Latinas took on the direct battles of the impoverished and downtrodden - including the legal woes of the Latino community - and other Latinas, proudly strengthened the jurisprudence of our nation through service to the government, private law firms, and public interest entities. Some of these women came up the hard way, overcoming racial discrimination, poverty, and life in a country that was not initially familiar to them, while some of these other Latinas enjoyed access to opportunities that were not previously available to the generations before them. The thirteen Latina litigators of the Supreme Court begin entering the legal profession in the 1960s and have continued achieving access that had previously not been available, becoming the “firsts” to also serve our great nation as Judges, an Ambassador to Argentina, a law school professor, civil rights leaders, appellate attorneys, and as mentors to other Latinas aspiring a career in law.

So why care about the Latina litigants of the Supreme Court? Because generally there is no other court where advocacy can wield more far-reaching influence than the Supreme Court. Advocates from all walks of life powerfully shaped the law to reflect the values, priorities and character of the American people. Consider, for example, the triumphant some of these “firsts” went on to achieve. James DeAnda, an attorney with the Hernandez v. Texas team, went on to successfully argue a series of school desegregation cases, created a civil legal services for low-income families, and was one of the founders MALDEF. Justice Thurgood Marshall pioneered litigation to end racial segregation and discrimination in the United States. Constance Baker Motley at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund (NAACP LDF), who was the first African American woman to argue before the high court, argued ten race discrimination cases before the high court between 1961 and 1964, winning nine of them. Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project briefed and argued the leading women’s rights cases of the 1970s as the Director of the Women’s Rights Project.

Latinas who constitute 7% of the total U.S. population and are part of the nation’s youngest, largest and fastest growing ethnic group represent only 1.3% of the nation’s lawyers. The underrepresentation of Latina attorneys has a “negative impact on the ability of Latino/as to advocate and to participate in national and local politics, and it limits access to vital legal services in Hispanic communities, which often face cultural and linguistic barriers. Increasing the number of Latina lawyers can have a profound impact on the political and socioeconomic status of Hispanics in the United States. Their under-representation challenges our legal and business institutions to implement strategies of inclusion and retention for Latinas and all women of color.
The full text is not available from SSRN, but Ms. Mendoza tells me that she hopes to make additional research and an article available in future.

On the subject of Latina/Latino attorneys, see also Michael A. Olivas' The First Latina/Latino Lawyers To Argue Before [the] Supreme Court. [Hat tip to Maria Guadalupe Mendoza].

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