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Reynaldo Garza, 89; First Latino Named a U.S. District Judge

September 17, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Reynaldo G. Garza, the son of Mexican immigrants who became the nation's first Latino federal district judge in 1961 and later became the first Mexican American appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, has died. He was 89.

Garza, who had battled pneumonia since July, died Tuesday in a hospital in Brownsville, Texas, said his son, Ygnacio.

During a meeting with President Kennedy in the Oval Office after Kennedy had appointed Garza to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Garza often recalled, the president told him: "It's up to you to do a good job so others can follow."

Garza later said that he knew when he was appointed to a federal judgeship that he would be closely watched, not only because he was new at the job, but because he was Mexican American.

"I've always said I hope I got the appointment because I was qualified, not because I was a Mexican American," he told United Press International years ago. "But I knew I had to do a good job or else they would accuse me of not doing a good job because I was a Mexican American. Others might suffer because of it."

Although some made a big issue of his appointment in 1961, Garza said, his heritage never made a difference in his work.

"On the bench, you're colorblind and don't know whether a man's rich or poor," he said.

"If we're true to our oath, we can't let those things interfere with truth and justice," he said.

Garza presided over numerous prominent civil rights cases throughout the 1960s and '70s, including one that challenged the tradition of having racially segregated unions and another in which a school district suspended a student for distributing antiwar leaflets.

Garza served the Southern District of Texas for 18 years, the last five as its chief judge. In 1979, he became the first Mexican American appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals after President Carter nominated him for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Carter had offered Garza the Cabinet post of attorney general, but Garza turned him down.

He reportedly did not want to give up his lifetime appointment as a federal judge nor did he want to be away from Brownsville for an extended period.

A revered figure in south Texas, where elementary schools in Brownsville and McAllen bear his name, Garza was considered a role model for young Latinos.

Ann Marie Tallman, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation's leading Latino civil rights organization, said in a statement Wednesday that Garza's "presence served to inspire other Latinos to become lawyers and to become part of the American system of justice."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry told Associated Press that Garza "served as an inspiration to generations of Mexican Americans and south Texans, a living testimonial to the American dream and the ability to rise above humble beginnings to achieve professional greatness."

The sixth of eight children, Garza was born in Brownsville on July 7, 1915. His parents had immigrated to the United States more than a decade earlier to escape civil unrest in Mexico.

"I decided when I was a little boy I wanted to be a lawyer and never wanted to be anything else," Garza, whose fascination with the law came from watching trials in the local courthouse, told UPI in 1982.

Garza worked two years as a laborer for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression to pay for his tuition at the University of Texas at Austin. He earned a law degree there in 1939 and set up practice in Brownsville.

After serving in the Army Air Forces from 1942 to 1945, he returned to private practice in Brownsville, where he later became a school board member and city commissioner.

In 1982, Garza assumed senior status, which allowed the appointment of another judge to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. After that, he served on the court with a reduced workload.

"He was still actively working on the circuit in terms of doing bench memos up until three or four weeks ago," Ygnacio Garcia told The Times on Wednesday. "He loved the law, and he loved what he did."

"All Rise: Reynaldo G. Garza, the First Mexican-American Federal Judge," a biography by Louise Ann Fisch, was published by Texas A&M University Press in 1997.

In addition to his son Ygnacio, Garza is survived by his wife of 61 years, Bertha; sons Reynaldo Jr. and David; daughters Bertha Elizondo and Monica Garza; a sister, Argentina Garza; 12 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Garza's sons Reynaldo Jr. and David and one grandson followed his example and became lawyers.

A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday in Jacob Brown Auditorium on the University of Texas campus in Brownsville.

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