'He is our Thurgood Marshall'Houston Chronicle
Former U.S. District Judge James deAnda, who played a crucial role in a little-known, but pivotal 1954 case that recognized Hispanics as a protected class of people, died Thursday at his summer home in Traverse City, Mich., of prostate cancer. The Houston native was 81.
DeAnda was the last surviving member of a legal team of four Hispanic attorneys behind the case, Hernandez v. Texas, which overturned an all-white jury's murder conviction of a southeast Texas man. On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that Hispanics were a separate group deserving of the same constitutional protections as other minorities.
"He is our Thurgood Marshall in many respects," said Michael Olivas, a University of Houston Law Center professor and longtime friend, referring to the first black Supreme Court justice, who also played a key role in doing away with racial segregation.
DeAnda went on to fight segregation of Hispanics within Texas' schools and later became the second Hispanic federal judge in the U.S. He also served as a chief federal judge.
In the Hernandez case, deAnda and his law partner John J. Herrera showed that Hispanics were essentially barred in Jackson County from serving as jurors despite making up 16 percent of the population at the time. The attorneys found that no Hispanic had ever served on any jury in a quarter of a century there.
They noted in their case that minorities were forced to use segregated bathrooms in the same courthouse where the state argued Hispanics were classified as white. Bathrooms for Hispanics and blacks were in the basement, which bore the sign "Colored Men and Hombres Aqui," said Olivas, whose book about the case was recently published.
'Never sought limelight'
The landmark case was overshadowed more than a week later, however, when the high court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision. The two watershed civil rights cases should be considered "bookends" that began to unravel decades of wrongs experienced by blacks and Hispanics, Olivas said.
But, few may have heard of deAnda or the role he played in securing Hispanics' civil rights.
"There is no school named after him," Olivas said. "He never sought the limelight, therefore people don't know him."
The son of Mexican immigrants, deAnda was raised in Houston's north side.
He graduated from Jefferson Davis High School in 1942 and enrolled at Texas A&M University.
He interrupted his schooling to join the Marines during World War II. He served in the Pacific and then later in China.
After the war, deAnda completed his legal studies at the University of Texas Law School. In 1950, he returned to Houston, but had a difficult time finding work because no firm would hire a Hispanic, Olivas said.
He ultimately teamed with Herrera, and both routinely took cases statewide because there were so few Hispanic lawyers representing Americans of Mexican descent.
The Hernandez case was one of the pair's earliest cases. Pete Hernandez, a cotton picker from Edna, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Joe Espinosa during a bar fight.
The attorneys appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court with funding from civil rights groups, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum.
Attorneys Carlos Cadena and Gus Garcia were added to the team and both argued the case before the high court the first Hispanics to do so.
Hernandez was convicted when the case was retried, this time with a jury that included two Hispanics.
'Genuine role model'
In 1954, deAnda filed suit against the Driscoll School District, the first in a series of school desegregation cases.
Hispanic and white students were separated when they entered first grade in the South Texas school district.
The Hispanic students spent three years in the first grade, after which they were declared bilingual and promoted to the second grade.
The court ruled in deAnda's favor and the district ultimately abandoned the system. Similar cases followed in Corpus Christi and other nearby school districts.
"Judge deAnda was the epitome of humility," said Michael Solar, another longtime friend and legal partner. "He always respected his role as a lawyer, as a judge and as a civic leader. ... He was never rancorous, but instead always demonstrated a great deal of understanding and desire to work toward the common good. He was a genuine role model."
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed deAnda to serve as a federal judge for the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas.
He was sworn in by Texas' first Hispanic federal judge, Reynaldo Garza.
DeAnda was the last Mexican-American judge appointed in the Southern District, Olivas noted.
"What's important is what happened, but also what hasn't happened," he said.
DeAnda also served as the Southern District's chief judge from 1988 until he retired four years later.
He returned to private practice in Houston and joined Solar's firm. He set aside his legal work in December, when he began cancer therapy.
DeAnda is also credited with creating the Texas Rural Legal Aid, which provides services to migrant farm workers and was also cofounder of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund or MALDEF.
"In dangerous and difficult times, he and the few other Mexican American lawyers worked tirelessly to defend our communities' interests before an indifferent judiciary and hostile legislatures," stated John Trasviņa, the group's interim president and general counsel. "We are all in his debt, and his co-founding of MALDEF planted the seeds that we still cultivate today."
DeAnda's survivors include his wife, Joyce, and four children. A Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Michael Catholic Church, 1801 Sage.