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James deAnda, 81; Worked to Establish Mexican Americans' Constitutional Rights

September 14, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

James deAnda, a retired federal judge who as a lawyer on a pivotal 1950s case established that Mexican Americans were entitled to the same constitutional protections as other minorities, died of prostate cancer Sept. 7 at his vacation home in Traverse City, Mich. The longtime Houston resident was 81.

DeAnda was the last surviving member of the four-man legal team behind Hernandez vs. Texas, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 3, 1954. The Hernandez decision, which overturned a murder conviction by an all-white jury, for the first time gave Mexican Americans status as a distinct legal classification entitled to special protection under the Constitution.

The youngest member of the team, deAnda researched and wrote the briefs for the case, the first tried by Mexican Americans before the nation's highest court.

He went on to wage successful legal battles challenging substandard schooling for Mexican American children in Texas and helped found a leading Latino civil rights organization: the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He became a federal judge in 1979.

"He was our Thurgood Marshall," Michael A. Olivas, a University of Houston law professor and the editor of a recent book about the Hernandez case, said in comparing deAnda with the first African American Supreme Court justice.

The Hernandez case was eclipsed by Marshall's triumph as lead attorney in Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation ruling handed down two weeks later, May 17, 1954. Yet the Hernandez case represented a watershed moment in Latinos' struggle for equal rights -- one that has influenced other high court decisions, including the Bakke affirmative action case in 1978.

"I can't think of another case as important for the Hispanic community as Hernandez," said Norma Cantu, a former assistant secretary for civil rights in the Clinton administration's Education Department who now teaches law at the University of Texas in Austin.

"The legacy of the Hernandez case includes voting rights, education and employment cases. All of these efforts to work within the system to secure a place at the table resulted from Judge deAnda's work" in that case, Cantu said.

Described as modest and unassuming, deAnda often failed to received credit for his contributions to the Hernandez victory. "He has flown under the radar" of history, Olivas said, "but he was right in the thick of it. He was an equal partner to all the others."

Born in Houston, deAnda was the son of Mexican immigrants. He attended Texas A&M University and served in the Marines during World War II, before receiving a law degree from the University of Texas in 1950.

He passed the bar that year, but white firms would not hire him, especially after they learned that his heritage was Mexican. He knocked on doors looking for work but did not succeed until 1951, when attorney John J. Herrera offered him a chair in his Houston office and $25 a week.

One of the new lawyer's first assignments was to prepare a challenge of a grand jury indictment in Fort Bend County based on the exclusion of Latinos from juries. DeAnda found that no Latino had ever served on a grand jury there, despite a sizable Latino population.

He believed he had solid grounds for a motion to quash the murder indictment against Aniceto Sanchez, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed. It maintained that Mexican Americans were white and that because the jury was white, there had been no discrimination.

DeAnda was incensed. "I wanted to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but neither my client nor I had the money," he told Olivas in an interview many years later.

The opportunity he sought came two years later, when Herrera asked a junior associate to help him defend a migrant cotton picker named Pete Hernandez, who had been accused of fatally stabbing another man during a bar fight in the east Texas town of Edna.

When Hernandez was found guilty by an all-white jury in Jackson County, the attorneys appealed on the grounds that no citizen of Mexican descent had served on a jury there in 25 years. Once again, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals could not be swayed.

The court relied on the same reasoning it had used in the Sanchez case: that Mexican Americans were not a separate classification from whites and therefore were not entitled to special consideration under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The constitutional amendment, passed after the Civil War and the end of slavery, had been used chiefly to uphold the rights of African Americans.

This time, deAnda and Herrera had the resources to continue the legal battle. Two civil rights groups -- the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum -- stepped forward with enough money to take the case to the Supreme Court. Herrera invited two seasoned civil rights lawyers, Gustavo C. Garcia and Carlos Cadena, to join the case and present the oral arguments.

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