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MALDEF Strives for More Legal Victories

April 18, 1991|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The legal minds at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund are preparing again for battle, this time against the giant Los Angeles Unified School District.

MALDEF and other groups allege in a lawsuit that the district has shortchanged Latino and other minority students by educating them in schools that are older and more crowded than those in predominantly Anglo communities. They also allege that less experienced teachers are assigned to the heavily minority schools. The case is expected to go to trial this summer.

"The key to our community's advancement is education," said Antonia Hernandez, MALDEF's president and general counsel. "We are a young community and that's where our future lies."

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks to force the Los Angeles school district to spend more of its resources on schools in minority areas. The district has denied any wrongdoing, blaming the state for providing too little money for education.

The case is one of more than 100 from Los Angeles to New York that fill MALDEF's docket, Hernandez said.

These are busy but good times for MALDEF, one of the nation's leading Latino civil rights organizations.

MALDEF is basking in its victory over the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. MALDEF, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Justice Department, filed the lawsuit that enabled a Latino to win a seat on the board for the first time in this century.

A federal judge ruled last year that the supervisors in 1981 drew district lines in a way that split Latino communities and diluted Latino political strength. U.S. District Judge David V. Kenyon threw out the old 1st District boundaries as discriminatory and new lines were drawn.

As a result, former Los Angeles Councilwoman Gloria Molina was elected to the powerful Board of Supervisors, which oversees more residents than the governments of 42 states. She took office March 8.

The timing of the case could not have been better, Hernandez said. Using new population figures from the 1990 Census, apportionment occur later this year for the U.S. Congress and state legislatures across the nation. Hernandez said the Los Angeles decision should send a clear signal to elected officials that they cannot gerrymander electoral districts in a manner that deprives Latinos of their political say.

But the case also represents more subtle gains for MALDEF and the Latino community, according to MALDEF officials.

Significant was MALDEF's decision to rely heavily on Latino experts, including a demographer, a historian and a political scientist, to prove that the county had discriminated against Latinos.

"The most important aspect in my opinion is the feeling of empowerment it gives our community," Hernandez said.

The county spent about $6 million on private lawyers and for other legal expenses to fight the lawsuit. The case demanded more of MALDEF's resources than any previous case, said E. Richard Larson, MALDEF's vice president of legal programs.

"The county tried to destroy us by papering us to death," Hernandez said.

The lawsuit involved about a dozen MALDEF staff members and lawyers, including lead attorney Richard Fajardo, who reported spending 539 hours on the case. MALDEF and the ACLU have filed court papers seeking $8.1 million in attorney fees and other costs from Los Angeles County.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich lashed out at the amount of the requested fees, saying: "This is the obscene final insult placed on the backs of Los Angeles County taxpayers."

The plaintiffs hope to reach an out-of-court settlement with the county on the legal costs.

The Los Angeles court victory contributed to MALDEF's reputation, which has been largely built lawsuit by lawsuit over the years, according to activists and political observers.

MALDEF, a nonprofit organization founded in 1968, has about 70 employees working out of offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Antonio, Chicago and Washington. Its budget for this year is projected at $4.7 million, Hernandez said.

"It's been the civil rights litigation organization," said Juan Gomez-Quinones, a UCLA history professor who specializes in political and labor studies. "It's important that it continues to litigate."

In addition to its legal work, MALDEF lobbies for legislative reforms, such as in immigration, and provides leadership workshops for Latinos who aspire to political office or who want to know how to improve conditions in their local communities and schools.

Hernandez said MALDEF's most pressing, immediate goal is to monitor redistricting later this year in seven states with sizable Mexican-American populations: California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois and Michigan.

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