Justice Prevails : Cruz Reynoso Was Swept Off the State Supreme Court With Rose Bird, but Now He’s Found New Causes and a New Career

<i> Philip Hager is a Times staff writer. </i>

THE ATTORNEY moves purposefully to the lectern, preparing to present his case before a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles.

“Justice Reynoso, what an honor it is to have you argue before our court,” says the presiding judge, smiling down from the bench.

“Well, thank you, Your Honor,” the attorney replies, “but on this occasion, I am Mr. Reynoso, rather than Justice Reynoso.”

Such exchanges are to be expected these days as Cruz Reynoso, swept out of office in a fiercely contested 1986 election, makes the transition from the California Supreme Court to a new role as lawyer, lecturer and activist.


To be sure, that defeat was a stunning setback for a man who had steadily advanced through his profession, becoming the first Latino to serve on the state high court. His was a judicial tenure that could have lasted decades, but in an unprecedented action, the voters rejected him and two other liberal justices. Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird became a television news commentator; Justice Joseph R. Grodin went back to teaching law, and Reynoso, after 10 years on the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, re-entered the world of the practicing attorney.

Today, the 58-year-old former justice is generally regarded as one of the most prominent Latino lawyers in the state, at the forefront of civil-rights efforts ranging from immigration to integrating law firms. But his defeat remains much on his mind, and, although the wound may not be completely healed, he offers an extensive analysis of the election with surprisingly little bitterness or rancor.

The most important factor in that election, he believes, was Gov. George Deukmejian’s decision to oppose him, Bird and Grodin. Deukmejian and other critics were angry with the court’s liberal record, especially on the death penalty.

“The state’s most important political figure, the governor, (concluded) that it was good for him politically to take on such a campaign,” Reynoso says. “That freed up a lot of money for the opposition. They were able to raise several millions of dollars that otherwise would have been difficult to raise.”

Those millions played an important role in the election. Like other state appellate or Supreme Court justices, he went before the electorate for approval or rejection, rather than run against an opponent. Because voters are deemed to be more easily persuaded to vote “no” than “yes,” Reynoso’s advisers told him that it would take three pro-Reynoso campaign ads to counteract one ad by his opponents. But he lacked the money to buy anywhere near that volume of ads. In the end, campaign spending by opponents of the three justices reached about $7 million, while proponents spent only about $4 million.

Reynoso remains concerned about the long-term effects of the campaign. He believes that the traditional independence of the judiciary may have been undermined for years to come.

“What the future holds, we don’t know,” he says. “But it seems unlikely that the judges who are on the court now won’t have in the back of their minds the fact that a political campaign may be launched against them if some powerful group in California becomes unhappy with a ruling they make.

“I don’t feel bitter,” Reynoso says. “I never took the matter personally. The voters didn’t really know who I was. All they knew is what the TV spots said about me . . . and you can’t blame them when the governor of the state, who is a lawyer, says the justices aren’t following the law. If I didn’t know better, I would have voted against me, too.”

But that didn’t blunt the sting of losing. Robert L. Gnaizda, an attorney with Public Advocates Inc. of San Francisco, a longtime friend of Reynoso, observes: “I think he was disappointed most in the election because he felt that if the voters had judged him by his record alone, they would never have voted him down. He loved being a Supreme Court justice because it suited his aspirations, temperament and intellect. He has always been a contemplative person--an activist, but always in a contemplative way. . . . But one of the great qualities about Cruz is that he has no streak of meanness or vengeance.”

Fate certainly played a part in Reynoso’s ouster. His term coincided with Bird’s, placing him on the ballot with one of the most controversial figures in recent California history. Had he come before the voters in some other election, he might have escaped defeat, as he did when he first went on the ballot in 1982 and won confirmation along with three other court members.

And, Reynoso believes, news coverage of the election worked against him. “If I had to give out grades to the news media, they would go all the way from D to F,” he says. “They treated it just like any political campaign, always focusing on whether people agreed or disagreed with certain opinions. . . . (The death penalty) should not have been the main issue, but that was the way it was posed by critics of the court, and it was picked up in that fashion by the media.”

In his view, reporters failed to convey that the justices should be evaluated not by the popularity of their decisions but by their competence, diligence and integrity.

He says that too much attention was paid to the court’s rulings on the death penalty (the Bird court reversed 64 of 68 capital sentences it reviewed), and too often the media gave the impression that convicted killers were being freed, when they were simply granted new trials.

He believes that had he and his two colleagues remained on the bench, the Bird court would be affirming capital cases substantially more often than it had. By now, he says, the major constitutional questions about the law have been resolved and fewer procedural errors are occurring at trial, reducing the prospect for reversals. “Whether it was the (new) court or ours, the number of affirmances would go up,” he says.

ON THE high court, Reynoso’s opinions often reflected concern for the rights of individuals involved in disputes with government authorities. His opinions were sometimes criticized privately by attorneys for lack of clarity, but he earned respect among many observers for his compassion. For example, he wrote the court’s opinion in a case that gave homeowners the precedent-setting right to sue airports for jet noise that presents a “continuing nuisance.”

He also wrote the decision that said an unmarried woman, like a spouse, can claim unemployment benefits when she quits her job to accompany the father of her children to another state. In a case that touched his own heritage, Reynoso held for the court that non-English-speaking defendants must be provided with an interpreter through all stages of a criminal case.

“The people of this state, through the clear and express terms of their constitution, require that all persons tried in a California court understand what is happening about them,” he wrote. “Who would have it otherwise?”

Since his defeat, he’s redirected his concerns in his work for Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, a New York-based, 400-member firm with offices around the world. Reynoso works from the firm’s third-floor office in the Old Sacramento section of the capital, but much of the time, he is on his way to or from airports, finding himself on planes an average of nearly once a week.

He remains the cordial and outgoing man he was on the high court, a nonsmoking, nondrinking Baptist whose strongest statements, rendered with a slight Spanish accent, tend to be punctuated with the word golly . He is content to reside with his wife, Jeannene, and four children away from the big city on a 30-acre farm in Herald, 30 minutes by car from Sacramento. He reports with pleasure that, after two busy years, he is finding time once again for farm chores. “I spent a couple of hours irrigating the other day,” he says with a laugh. “It was great fun.”

As an attorney, he conducts research on complex civil litigation, helps prepare briefs and occasionally argues cases on appeal. Clients have ranged from business people involved in property battles to low-income citizens contesting edicts from welfare officials. He also has served as a mediator in disputes between consenting parties and has testified in court as an expert witness on legal ethics.

Reynoso acknowledges that his years on the bench are useful to him in the courtroom. “After being on the court, you know better how to structure an argument,” he says. “You know what areas of law are more likely to concern the judges and what they will focus on in terms of issues.”

In a recent case before the state Court of Appeal, he won a decision giving two brothers he represented the right to pursue a lawsuit against a third brother in a dispute over the family’s holdings. During argument before the court, he relished the friendly reception he received from the panel but was still concerned that he might lose the case.

“Sometimes, the worst thing you can hear from a court is a compliment on your argument,” he said with a smile. “That means they’re going to rule against you.”

“If I had my druthers, I’d still be on the court,” Reynoso says. “But in life, you take what’s good and what’s bad. And one of the good things now is that I can be active in many matters that a person can’t be active in when one is a judge.”

Under an agreement with the law firm, Reynoso can spend as much as 40% of his time on pro bono activity, working for free in behalf of the public good. This frees the former justice, law professor and legal services administrator once again to express his lifelong zeal for reform. He serves on the boards of directors of several organizations, including the Latino Issues Forum, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is a member of the California Post-Secondary Education Commission and participates on a commission of the State Bar on providing legal services to indigents. And he is also involved with a group formed to encourage private attorneys to take worthy cases for free.

As board chairman of the Latino Issues Forum, he has taken a leading role in trying to persuade California law firms to hire and promote more Latino lawyers.

“Representatives of some firms say to me, ‘Hey, Cruz, what are you trying to do to us?’ I tell them, ‘Just a little consciousness-raising,’ ” he says.

Last year, the forum publicly criticized the state’s legal profession, citing a study that showed that while Latinos make up more than 20% of the population, they are only about 2% of the entry-level associates and 1% of the partners in the 30 largest firms in California.

Forum leaders were taken aback by the initial response from the firms. “A majority of the firms were kind of irate and indignant,” says John C. Gamboa, executive director of the group. “We received some fairly nasty letters adamantly opposed to any kind of goals and timetables for law firms.” But since then, Gamboa says, some firms have indicated that they are reconsidering the issue and are drafting new affirmative-action plans.

Conscious that law firms can’t hire more minorities unless law schools produce more minority graduates, Reynoso also presses for what he sees as the need for more ethnic and cultural diversity on that level. Only about one student in 10 attending law school today is Latino, black, Asian or American Indian. And Reynoso is concerned that efforts to increase minority enrollments are still falling short.

Last year, speaking at UCLA School of Law, Reynoso said he was saddened by what he sensed as law schools’ waning enthusiasm for attracting minorities. “Indeed,” he said, “sometimes there seems to be an element of resentment that people of color are coming to the law schools and, they feel, displacing others.”

Reynoso is active in immigration issues, and he has played a leading role in a current campaign by the forum and other Latino organizations to persuade the Justice Department to form a “citizenship bureau” to assist immigrants in the naturalization process. Advocates of the new agency, concerned about a low rate of naturalization among Latinos, say more immigrants would try to become citizens if there were a federal bureau that actively promoted the benefits of naturalization.

Reynoso sees an inherent conflict in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s performing the twin functions of assisting in the citizenship process and enforcing laws against illegal immigration. “There’s an incongruity in having the INS being both the cop on the beat and at the same time being the social worker encouraging people to become citizens,” he says.

It was Reynoso who served as the primary spokesman for a delegation of Latino leaders that met recently with U.S. Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh in Washington in preliminary discussions about creating the citizenship bureau.

“They spoke to each other across the table as equals,” Gamboa recalls. “We’re very lucky to have Cruz as the chair of our organization. Without him, we’d never have made the progress we have.”

REYNOSO KNOWS that progress often comes slowly, but he steadfastly believes that persistence and patience can result in reform. That is a lesson he says he learned as a boy, third eldest of 11 children of Mexican farm workers, when he led campaigns for mail delivery and a desegregated grade school.

He recalls that while he was a teen-ager living with his family in a small barrio near La Habra, the residents in his neighborhood were denied the rural mail delivery extended to non-minority families only a short distance away. After inquiring at the local post office, young Reynoso circulated a petition among neighborhood residents demanding service and sent it to Washington. A few months later, officials responded to the request, and mail began to be delivered to homes in the barrio.

When Reynoso reached high school, he challenged a local school-board policy that through the years had assigned Latinos to a segregated grade school before they moved on to integrated junior and senior high schools.

Among other things, he says, the policy dimmed the aspirations of minority students who were young and impressionable. He remembers confiding to a friend his then-ambition to become a naval officer--and that the friend had ridiculed the notion. “Cruz, they won’t let you,” he said in hushed Spanish.

Reynoso audaciously obtained meetings with school board members, who professed concern over possible racial violence at the school if it was integrated. He also met with community residents--both Anglo and Latino--who thought that the prospect of violence was far-fetched. A public meeting was called and the board, perhaps wary of a lawsuit, announced that the grade school would be desegregated. The audience, he remembers, cheered.

The young Reynoso won a scholarship to Pomona College before going on to Boalt Hall Law School at UC Berkeley. In 1959, he began practicing law in El Centro, but moved on to serve as a government civil-rights attorney. He then became director of California Rural Legal Assistance, a trailblazing legal services agency that survived a funding challenge by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to win wide acclaim within the legal profession.

He later worked as a professor of labor and constitutional law at the University of New Mexico, and in 1976, he was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Court of Appeal in Sacramento. In late 1981, he was named by Brown to the state Supreme Court, succeeding Mathew O. Trobriner, who had retired.

But the incidents that shaped him, that continue to drive him, he says, are those early barrio battles for equality.

“What sticks in my mind most vividly is that the people of the community, both Anglo and Mexican-American, were ready for the change,” Reynoso recalls. “Those incidents gave me a sense of confidence that government does respond to a petition for grievances. I realized that so many of the adults were complaining only to themselves about how unfair government can be. So I said, ‘Here’s something that can be done.’ And by golly, something did happen.”