The Hispanic "Brown" Case
Editorial in the NYT (May 15, 2004):
Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark civil rights decision, the first under the newly seated Chief Justice Earl Warren. Brown v. Board of Education, involving African-Americans and segregated schools, came two weeks later. Unlike Brown, the case called Hernandez v. Texas has been mostly relegated to legal footnotes. But this decision, which protected Mexican-Americans and the right to fair trials and helped widen the definition of discrimination beyond race, deserves more attention.
In Texas and throughout much of the Southwestern United States in the first half of the 20th century, people of Mexican origin were subjected to discrimination and worse. They were forced to use segregated public restrooms and attend segregated schools. Hundreds of them were killed in lynchings. And in Jackson County, Tex., where Mexican-Americans made up 14 percent of the population by the early 1950's, not a single person with a Spanish surname had been allowed to serve on a jury in 25 years. Some 70 Texas counties had similar records of exclusion.
The practice survived legal challenges until Pete Hernandez, a migrant cotton picker, was convicted by an all-Anglo jury in the murder of Joe Espinosa in Jackson County. Seeing an opportunity, a team of Hispanic civil rights lawyers from the American G.I. Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens filed a suit that finally reached the Supreme Court in early 1954. Ignacio Garcia, a history professor at Brigham Young University who is writing a book about the Hernandez case, said that it marked the first time Hispanic lawyers had argued before the Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Warren, in delivering the court's unanimous opinion on May 3, rejected the state's argument that the absence of Hispanics on juries was a coincidence and that in any case, they were represented because Mexican-Americans were legally classified as white. In reversing Mr. Hernandez's conviction, the court held that in excluding Hispanics from jury duty, Texas had unreasonably singled out a class of people for different treatment. The defendant, it said, had been deprived of the equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, a guarantee"not directed solely against discrimination between whites and Negroes."
Today, the Hernandez case is little known even among civil rights experts. It came at a time when the pillars of discrimination were set to topple in quick succession. The Brown decision drew all of the nation's attention and set civil rights priorities along racial lines. Women began to serve on Texas juries in 1954, and their battle for inclusion would continue to be waged in the South for the next decade.
Somehow, the transcripts of the Hispanic lawyers' oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the Hernandez case and other records were lost. As for Mr. Hernandez, he was convicted in Mr. Espinosa's murder a second time, by a jury that included two Mexican-American men. He served his time, and then he disappeared. But the case that bears his name does not deserve the same fate. It ushered in an era of progress and hope whose promises we are still struggling to keep.
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