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Profile: Judge José A. Cabranes

November 22, 2001
Copyright © 2001 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, much attention is being given to law and order. Regarding the law, the Supreme Court may ultimately be called upon to resolve such issues as the use of military courts in place of civilian courts in dealing with terrorists.

As attention focuses on the Supreme Court, so also will speculation swirl regarding potential future appointees of President George W. Bush. One of the names frequently mentioned as a leading candidate for a Supreme Court nomination is José A. Cabranes, Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Judge Cabranes has served 22 years in the federal courts. He was appointed to his present position in 1994 by President Clinton. For the preceding fifteen years, he served as a United States District Judge for the District of Connecticut, including two years as Chief Judge. When he was appointed to that court by President Carter in 1979, he was the first Puerto Rican named to the federal bench in the continental United States.

Judge Cabranes was born in 1940 in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, where his parents were teachers and his father was also a social worker. At the age of five, he moved with his family to the South Bronx, where his father became director of Melrose House, a settlement house serving newly-arrived Puerto Rican migrants in a working class neighborhood in transition. After attending public schools in New York City, he graduated from Columbia College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1961, from Yale Law School with a Law degree in1965 and from the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, with a Masters in Literature degree (in International Law) in1967.

Judge Cabranes was serving as General Counsel of Yale University when he was first appointed to the federal bench in 1979. Previously he had practiced in a New York City law firm; taught international human rights law at Yale Law School and Rutgers University Law School; and served as Special Counsel to the Governor of Puerto Rico and as head of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico's office in Washington, D.C.

His philosophy concerning the practice of law is reflected in a speech he gave to University of Connecticut Law School graduates, in which Judge Cabranes counseled them that having personal connections, wealth or luck is not enough to succeed in the legal profession. "Intelligence, judgment and hard work are indispensable to success in the law," he said, "and it is rare that, in their absence, a good name, good manners or good luck can be of much help. A lawyer’s job is to represent others, and when it comes to choosing someone to protect one’s life, liberty or property, no one in his right mind will choose to be represented by a well-mannered, well-connected or well-heeled person who cannot do the job."

Judge Cabranes’ early years of teaching at Yale and Rutgers Law Schools demonstrate only a small part of his dedication to education. He also served as a trustee of Yale University from 1987 to 1999 and in 2000 was appointed a trustee of his other alma mater, Columbia University. He has also served as a trustee of Colgate University and of the Yale-New Haven Hospital and has received several awards and honorary degrees from American universities. His belief in the importance of education in a person’s human development is heard in the words he spoke at the 75th anniversary of Columbia’s Core Curriculum in 1995. "Education is about choices — about the hierarchies of choices established by reason, by experience, and by the good sense of our teachers — and about teaching students how to make choices with informed and discriminating (as opposed to discriminatory) judgment," he said.

While he is known for making objective, discriminating judgments in the courtroom, Judge Cabranes has also worked against subjective discrimination outside the courtroom. Before his appointment to the federal bench, Judge Cabranes served as a trustee of several civic and social welfare agencies, including the Hudson Guild, a settlement house in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. In addition, he was Chairman of two major Hispanic civil rights organizations: Aspira of New York, the educational agency that helps inner-city Hispanic youth prepare for college, and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, of which he was a founding member.

As a judge, Cabranes won the praise of civil rights organizations when he refused to dismiss racial discrimination charges against New Haven police officers, and he is on record as opposing the federal sentencing guidelines which he says hurt poor and minority defendants and limit judicial discretion. On the more conservative side, in United States v. Torniero, Cabranes ruled that a defendant's compulsive gambling was not sufficient basis for an insanity defense.

Consistent with his objectivity, Judge Cabranes’ decisions from the bench preclude political categorization. As a result, he has been prominently mentioned by both Democrats and Republicans as a potential Supreme Court nominee.

As another tribute to his effectiveness on the bench, the Federal Bar Council, in 2000, bestowed upon Judge Cabranes the Learned Hand Medal for Excellence in Federal Jurisprudence.

Outside the courtroom, Judge Cabranes is an author and family man. He is married to Kate Stith, the Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and has four children. His book Fear of Judging: Sentencing Guidelines in the Federal Courts, co-authored with Stith, was awarded the 1999 Certificate of Merit of the American Bar Association. He is also the author of Citizenship and the American Empire (1979), a legislative history of the United States citizenship of the people of Puerto Rico, and articles in British and American law journals.


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