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THE HARTFORD COURANT
Lack Of Latino Judges Is A Political Time Bomb
Juan A. Figueroa
August 23, 2002
When it comes to sorting out facts or interpreting the law, a judge's race or ethnicity is as critical as her legal experience. Having DeJesus as a last name and knowing the difference between a taco and an alcapurria (a green banana croquette stuffed with beef) is as relevant as graduating from the City University of New York, the University of Connecticut or Santa Clara University and practicing family law for 15 years.
Yet there are few on the bench who know that tacos and alcapurrias are culturally distinct food items, let alone the difference between them. Indeed, the outrageously low number of Latino judges at all levels of the judiciary is a political time bomb and a threat to our democratic values. Latino appointments need to be made, and soon.
A look at a case out of New York shows the urgency of the issue. Earlier this summer, a New York State Court of Appeals overturned a lower court opinion that the state's school funding system deprived hundreds of thousands of New York City children of their constitutional right to a sound, basic education. Some 73 percent of city schoolchildren are Latinos and African Americans. The African American judge who wrote the lower court opinion found the state lacking in its financial contributions to city public schools.
The all-white appellate court panel of judges said that the only thing the state constitution required was that these students be equipped for the lowest-level, lowest-paying jobs requiring an eighth- or ninth-grade education.
I cannot imagine that a Latino appellate court judge - one who has experienced an urban education - would have set the bar so low.
The individuals who make these decisions bring to them more than trained legal minds. Judges also bring real-life experiences and values. In America, an individual's ethnicity and/or race is a big part of her experience. As has been said, race is America's story. These elements make the law come alive in a constitutional democracy.
There are many reasons for appointing Latino judges and for a more diverse judiciary. Promoting respect for the rule of law is one. Engendering confidence in an impartial and fair judiciary is another. Strengthening the integrity of the process and the quality of judicial decisions is yet another. And of course, fulfilling our democratic values of inclusion and a representative democracy.
Yet the number of Latino judges is so absurdly low that it defies reason. The percentage of federal judgeships held by Hispanic Americans was just 3.7 percent in 2000, and the percentage of state judgeships was essentially the same at 3.8 percent. The Hispanic population was 12.5 percent of the total U.S. population in the 2000 Census, up from 9 percent a decade earlier. These numbers are particularly troubling when compared to the dramatic growth of the Latino population.
This disparity occurs at a time when Latinos find ourselves more involved with the judicial system than most other Americans are. Courts and other government agencies regulate the large numbers of Latinos who are immigrants, both documented and undocumented. In 1999, Latinos were crime victims at a rate of 35.3 per 1,000 of those age 12 and over, compared to a rate of 32.7 percent for non-Hispanic whites. And let's not forget our overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. Of the 1.3 million people in state and federal prisons, 2.9 percent are Hispanic men 20 through 29 years old, compared with 1.1 percent of non-Hispanic men.
If we look at states with the highest concentration of Latinos, things do not get much better. California has a mere 192 out of 1,580 state judges counted as Hispanics; yet the percentage of Latinos in California is 32.4 percent, constituting the largest Latino population in any state. Nevada, Illinois, Connecticut, Utah and Rhode Island have less than 3 percent of their state judges listed as Hispanics. New York, with its huge Latino population and generally immigrant-friendly attitude, has an embarrassing 1.6 percent of its state judges hailing from the Hispanic community.
Sooner rather than later, the Latino electorate is going to make the connection. As governors, mayors and presidential candidates seek an edge by courting the Latino vote, those who vote will understand the cause-and-effect relationship. The Latino leadership, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, certainly understands it.
Candidates will not be able to get by with the occasional Spanish phrase. They will have to deliver many DeJesuses to the bench who have not only well-trained legal minds, but also an understanding of the difference between a taco and an alcapurria along with a deep understanding of the community. Anything less will seriously undermine the foundation of our democracy.
Juan A. Figueroa is president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City. He served as a Democratic state representative from Hartford from 1988 to 1993. His column appears the fourth Friday of every month. To leave him a comment, please e-mail him at email@example.com