Goal IX Newsletter

Fall 2004, Volume 10, Number 4

Equality Among Diversity: by Armando Lasa

Armando Lasa

Diversity has been one of the greatest building blocks of the United States of America, and yet throughout its history, diverse groups have had to fight for equal rights. For nearly two centuries this has been the plight of Hispanics in the United States. To this day, although one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S., Hispanics have not been able to achieve solcial, political, and economic equality.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), and history changed forever. Just two weeks prior to that, however, on May 3, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a lesser-known case also involving civil rights, specifically the right to a fair trial and the equal protection of the laws. This was the case of Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954).

The petitioner, Pete Hernandez, was indicted for murder of one Joe Espinosa by a grand jury in Jackson County, Texas. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Texas Court of Appeals confirmed the conviction, despite petitioner's allegations made prior to trial that persons of Mexican descent were systematically excluded from service as jury commissioners, grand jurors, and petit jurors, although there were such persons fully qualified to serve residing in Jackson County. 347 U.S. 475,476-477.

The case record showed that the Jackson County community distinguished between "white" and"Mexican". The participation of persons of Mexican descent in business and community groups was shown to be slight. Children of Mexican descent had been required to attend a segregated school for the first four grades, and most left school by the fifth or sixth grade. Id., p. 479. At least one restaurant in town prominently displayed a sign announcing "No Mexicans Served." Id. Meanwhile, on the courthouse grounds at the time of the hearing, there were two men's toilets, one unmarked and the other marked "Colored Men" and "Hombres Aqui" ("Men Here"), Id., pp. 479-480. Moreover, the State of Texas admitted that while 14% of the population of Jackson County was made up of persons with Mexican or Latin American surnames, not a single person with a Mexican or Latin American name had served on a jury commission, grand jury or petit jury in at least twenty-five years. Id., pp. 480-481.

The Supreme Court, through the voice of Chief Justice Warren, decided unanimously in favor of Hernandez and reversed the decision of the lower courts. The Court rejected the argument of the State of Texas that only two classes - "white" and "African-American" - were contemplated in the Fourteenth Amendment. Id., p. 477. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment is not directed solely against discrimination between two classes, and it found that people of Mexican descent were treated as a separate class in the community. The Court went on to state that while"[c]ircumstances or chance may well dictate that no persons in a certain class will serve on a particular jury or during some particular period", it was impossible to believe that "mere chance resulted in there being no members of this class among the over six thousand jurors called in the past 25 years." Id., p. 482. According to the high court, the result bespoke discrimination. Id. Mr. Hernandez, the Court held, had the Constitutional right to be indicted and tried by a jury from which all members of his class were not systematically excluded — simply a jury selected from among all qualified persons regardless of national origin or descent. Id.

Many battles, big and small, have been fought in the fight for civil rights, and none should be overlooked. On many occasions, lawyers who have personally felt the pangs of self-preservation have undertaken these battles - Hernandez had Hispanic counsel; Thurgood Marshall was one of the attorneys in Brown v. Board of Education. Many more battles are still needed to cause a change in consciousness, not only among those who have struggled for self-preservation, but among all people. Stereotypes and labels must be eliminated if we are to achieve true equality, and it is up to us, the legal profession in the United States of America, as diverse as we may be, to continue to carry forth the message of equality.

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