Legacy of controversy

Cruz Reynoso has always aggressively pushed the civil rights agenda, and sometimes paid a price

Cruz Reynoso.

Cruz Reynoso.

Since a humble beginning as a poor migrant farm worker in El Centro, Cruz Reynoso has gone on to become an internationally known civil rights advocate, a respected scholar and the first Latino appointed to the California Supreme Court. Yet he’s also been a political lightning rod. He was removed from the court for perceived opposition to the death penalty and played a controversial role in the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida.

And now, this outspoken UC Davis professor has entered the debate over the hot button proposition on the November ballot—the Racial Privacy Initiative. Some laud Reynoso as a heroic champion of the under-privileged, others charge him with using questionable tactics to promote the liberal agenda. Yet few question the fact that he’s left an indelible mark on the state and country.

Reynoso’s first experience with civil rights advocacy came at age 12 when he and his friends were prohibited from entering a dance at the local community center because they were Mexican-American. Unwilling to simply accept the discrimination, Reynoso marched inside and confronted the person in charge of the dance.

“That was the first time that I ever got kicked out of a place, but I never heard of the dances being segregated again,” he said with a warm laugh. “Later, when I thought about how I confronted the guy to defend us, I thought ‘Who could do that better than a lawyer?’ ”

So Reynoso went to UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, graduating in 1958 and setting up his practice in El Centro the following year. As the only Spanish-speaking lawyer in the area, he worked closely with famed labor leader Cesar E. Chavez to advance the farm workers’ movement. Reynoso claims that his involvement in the farm workers’ movement is what prompted an impressed Governor Jerry Brown to appoint him to the California Supreme Court in 1982.

Controversy surrounding Reynoso’s approach to justice began in 1986 when, in an effort to win the conservative vote, Republican gubernatorial candidate and then-Attorney General George Deukmejian launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to unseat Reynoso, Justice Joseph Grodin and Chief Justice Rose Bird, accusing the trio of overturning lawful death penalty convictions because of their supposed moral objections to capital punishment.

Deukmejian hired the law firm of Riordan & McKinzie, introducing future Los Angeles mayor and gubernatorial candidate Richard Riordan to California politics as he tried to make the case that Reynoso and his colleagues had engaged in judicial activism, attempting to shape society by blatantly undermining existing policies.

The evidence was Reynoso’s record in the California Supreme Court. Of the 61 death penalty convictions that came before him, he voted to uphold only three. Reynoso was branded as being anti-death penalty, and after serving five years on the Court, voters chose to replace him.

Squinting his face and shaking his head, Reynoso still appears perplexed by the turn of events that ousted him from office some 16 years ago. “I never had an objection to the death penalty,” he says. “I upheld the law.”

“It’s just that, at that time, California didn’t have an acceptable means of administering the death penalty,” he says, referring to debates on the constitutionality of using the gas chamber. Years later, in 1994, rulings by a U.S. District judge were upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the gas chamber was cruel and unusual punishment. Executions since then have been conducted by lethal injection.

Despite the damaging allegations, Reynoso maintained an excellent reputation among most in the legal community. He has received national recognition for his contributions to the judicial system, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country’s highest honors.

“He was one of the stalwarts of humanity, compassion and integrity. He was one of the scholars of the legal profession. That made him a beacon in the legal community for the past generation,” says Peter Keane, dean and professor of law at Golden Gate University.

After his career as a judge, Reynoso continued to play a strong role in advocating for civil rights. In 1993, the U.S. Senate appointed Reynoso to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where he now serves as vice chairperson. This bipartisan commission was responsible for investigating the complaints of discrimination in Florida during the 2000 presidential elections. However, critics quickly charged Reynoso, a longtime Democrat, with using the investigation and his position as vice chairperson to influence the elections in favor of Al Gore.

The commission’s majority opinion, supported by Reynoso and four others, reported that apathetic Florida state officials did not do enough to ensure that the election was conducted properly. A section of the report reads: “Approximately 11 percent of Florida voters were African-American; however, African-Americans cast about 54 percent of the 180,000 spoiled ballots in Florida during the November 2000 election based on estimates derived from county-level data.”

Warren Christopher, lawyer for Al Gore, cited these statistics to make arguments in favor of a recount and to attack the integrity of the Bush campaign. Christopher hoped that ballots originally thought to show a “no vote” for president would actually reveal a vote for Gore when examined more closely, although the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount on a 5-4 vote.

While a recount was still an active possibility, GOP-appointed commissioners Abigail Thernstrom and Russell G. Redenbaugh drafted a dissenting opinion contending that the disproportionate numbers of spoiled votes were due to lower literacy rates among blacks and that officials had done their best to conduct the elections. Thernstrom claims that Reynoso went into a tirade, demanding that the commission vote to suppress the dissent (which could have proved damaging to Gore’s chances for a recount).

“He went out of his mind trying to intimidate people. He started foaming out of his mouth, and he was screaming like he does all the time,” said Thernstrom. “I think he hates George W. Bush. The commission is supposed to be bipartisan, but that’s a joke.”

Reynoso’s motion failed 5-3. The commission, however, voted to delay any publishing of the dissent until its legality could be verified. Reynoso, on the other hand, maintains that his motion to suppress a dissent he considered misleading and politically suspect was in the public’s interest.

“I just wanted to make sure that everybody got a fair shake.”

Once again, the Florida controversy did little to hurt his reputation among his admirers or in academia. Last year, he was awarded the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality at UC Davis School of Law. Criteria for the chair include exhibiting outstanding leadership and a strong belief in the rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

A longtime supporter of affirmative action, he plans to use his teaching position to educate others on the importance of diversity. Last month, at UC Davis, he delivered a speech addressing the low number of minorities in California’s graduate and law schools. Reynoso says that he will lobby state officials to get them to enact legislation geared toward increasing the numbers.

“I think [Proposition] 209 was a mistake,” Reynoso said, speaking of the anti-affirmative action proposition authored by rival and chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition, Ward Connerly. “I think the Legislature should get people to pay attention to that under-representation.”

Connerly accuses the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), where Reynoso sits as a board member, of issuing false statements about the ACRC’s Racial Privacy Initiative. The initiative, scheduled to be on the November ballot, would prohibit state and local agencies from asking for a person’s race on applications and questionnaires.

“They lied when they said that the initiative would affect health care. Clause F specifically excludes health care and medical research,” said Connerly, apparently upset by MALDEF’s statements.

MALDEF claims that their criticisms of the RPI are true. “Ward Connerly said it himself, ‘Death certificates would no longer have race on them.’ You couldn’t track death rates of the different races,” says Maria Blanco, MALDEF’s national senior counsel. “That’s why health officials like Carmen Nevarez, medical director and vice president of the California Public Health Institute, have opposed the initiative.”

Reynoso’s biggest concern is with what he perceives to be a tendency for Caucasians to mistreat Mexican-Americans. He contends that Caucasians, who have the majority of California’s political power, are not doing enough to make sure that everyone has a fair chance at prosperity. Yet, with California’s rising Hispanic population, we may see a shift in political influence.

Recently, there has been an increase in the number of Hispanics in key positions. Take for example, Antonio Villaraigosa, who became the speaker of the Assembly after Willie Brown. We have a Mexican-American lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, and in Sacramento, a Mexican-American Police Chief, Arturo Venegas.

“Anglos will be in the minority soon,” Reynoso warns. “So if they don’t want Mexican-Americans to mistreat them once we come to power, they should seriously think about that.”

While Reynoso claims that he has always represented fairness and equality, he calls himself an “opportunistic optimist.” The term refers to a person who uses whatever means or methods available and hopes for a favorable result. So far, both supporters and critics of Cruz Reynoso seem to agree with that self-analysis.