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Law students’ conference raises issue of little Latino presence in profession

By Yahaira Castro Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday October 30, 2001

Students and law professionals who attended the fifth annual National Latino and Latina Law Students Conference this weekend at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School agreed the field is hurting from a lack of Latinos. 

“There isn’t a level playing field in our courtrooms,” said Jessica Delgado, a public defender in Monterey. 

The situation is particularly dire in California, which has a population of more than 10 million Latinos. 

According to the California La Raza Lawyers Association, out of 1,600 superior court trial positions only 72 are held by Latinos. Furthermore, only 4 percent of the state’s attorneys are Latino. Therefore, clients who want a Latino lawyer have an especially small pool to choose from. 

Almost all who came to the conference expressed concerns that ranged from the number of Latino judges to universities’ admission policies. 

Margaret Montoya, a professor at University of New Mexico’s School of Law, said Latinos living in California make up one-third of its population and should expect to see a good representation of lawyers and judges they can turn to. 

“Supporters of legislation like Proposition 209 say that race is a proxy,” she said. “But we need to tell them that we are coming from a world view from which we understand the world and can help.” 

Gabriella Gallegos, 25, a student, said the university’s law school was once one of the most diverse schools in the country, and Proposition 209 has helped to change that. 

This year, only 17 of the program’s 299 enrolled students, identify themselves as Latino. 

But, Victoria Ortiz, an assistant dean, said the real problem of diversity in the school wasn’t admitting students. She said there was little money for scholarships to offer applicants. 

Out of 28 Latino students who were admitted but chose not to enroll, 27 went to Stanford, Ortiz said. Students chose Stanford over Berkeley because they received more scholarships to fund their education, she added. 

Yet, Delgado indicated that the issue wouldn’t be resolved by bringing in more judges and lawyers of Latin descent. She said there are many other challenges, which undermine the quality of representation the system offers clients. 

Delgado said she often sees Latino judges sentence clients more harshly than their white counterparts. 

“The benefit for the client whose case is being heard by a Latino judge is that the color of their skin and background should resonate with that judge,” she said. 

Delgado, who said she is often mistaken as an interpreter, also said the challenges she faces make the work of defending clients extremely difficult. She said she has had to convince judges, colleagues and even clients that a Latina could do the job. 

“I’ve had clients request a white male to be their attorney because they think a lawyer from that background will have better rapport with a judge,” said Delgado. 

Richard Paez, a judge with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, said he didn’t apply a different standard to determine decisions on cases brought against Latino clients. 

“When you take an oath at the federal level, you swear to judge the case that’s being advocated in your courtroom fairly,” he said. 

Nonetheless, he said, he can’t help but draw on his experiences and background to judge cases. However, he’ll use his knowledge to apply it on cases across racial and economic lines, he said.  

Panelists told students that forums like the weekend conference were important to bring about change. 

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a speed bump, but don’t misunderstand me,” Delgado told students. “I love what I do.” 

She said she feels elated when she wins small victories for a client whose rights have been trampled on. 

“You can affect people’s lives in a variety of different ways,” she told students. 

Valeriano Salcedo, a superior court judge in Tulare, said institutions of higher education needed to work on the K-12 grades, which can act as a “feeder system for students to enter competitive law programs.” 

Some professionals who attended the conference indicated that changing the status quo in law schools can impact the number of Latinos in those institutions. They said students are in a position to challenge university officials into changing the system. 

William Kidder, a researcher at Boalt Law School, said across the country there is a direct correlation with student activism and universities’ hiring of Latino professors and admission rates of Latino students. 

“The things that you do, at whatever school you’re going back to, can play a pivotal role in your school’s policy.”