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January 2021 Hero of the Month: Cruz Reynoso

Cruz Reynoso was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Supreme Court in 1982 and served four years until he was swept out of office with Chief Justice Rose Bird and Associate Justice Joseph Grodin in the re-call election of 1986. He currently lives in a retirement home and is nearing his 90th birthday (which ironically is the same day as mine in May).

I have never met Justice Reynoso but I have heard many testimonials to both him and Justice Grodin from law students that they taught after they left the bench (Reynoso at UCLA and UC Davis and Grodin at Hastings).

His life story is worth a book but here is a thumbnail sketch.

He was born in California in 1931 as one of 11 children and grew up with vivid memories of The Great Depression. His father worked in the orange groves of Southern California and was able to keep the family afloat by having his children work in the fields and by traveling to the Central Valley in the summer to pick crops. Cruz saw first-hand the backbreaking work that was involved in the fields and was determined to get as much education as possible.

As a young man, he saw first-hand in his hometown of Brea and later in La Habra, the discrimination his community faced from the poor quality of their schools, to things as simple as not having mail service. He led a petition drive to demand mail service and miraculously succeeded.

Through determination and hard work, he quickly passed through junior college and was accepted at prestigious Pomona College. After graduation, he fulfilled his military service by serving two years in Army intelligence in Washington D.C. With the benefit of the G.I. Bill, he was able to attend the law school at UC Berkeley.

In 1959, he opened a one man law office in El Centro to offer help to the local Hispanic community in a farm community similar to those he lived in as a child. Shortly thereafter, he met Cesar Chavez and began a long journey together: culminating in 1968 when he was appointed the first Director of California Rural Legal Assistance. While in that role, he oversaw landmark lawsuits that provided much needed protection for the working conditions of farm workers and others among the rural poor, including health and safety conditions in the fields, abusive employment practices and education benefits for migrant children.

In 1970, Governor Reagan and agribusiness interests attached the CRLA in an attempt to abolish it. Eventually, a panel of three supreme court justices from other states were appointed to review the evidence against the CRLA and in 1971 after hearing from almost 200 witnesses and reviewing the cases filed by CRLA, exonerated Reynoso and the CRLA.

In 1976 then Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Reynoso to the 3rd District Court of Appeal and then six years later to the California Supreme Court.

In addition to his teaching, in his later years, Reynoso also served on the US Civil Rights Commission for over a decade and lectured widely on the need for better educational opportunities, housing and health care for minorities and the poor.

In 2000, President Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his lifetime devotion to these issues.

Those are some but by no means all of his accomplishments. What I have heard from so many was praise for his character: almost everyone uses these terms to describe him “humble, respectful, intelligent, a warrior for what he believed in but a gentleman at all times…a great teacher, a great mentor…a man who has never forgotten his roots.”

While there is no formal biography about Justice Reynoso, there was a very well-done documentary film by Abby Ginzberg on his life and work in 2010: “Cruz Reynoso, Sowing the Seeds of Justice.” Those interested in the issues of rural poverty and the evolution of the farm workers movement under Cesar Chavez, I can recommend two books by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Miriam Pawel: “The Union of Their Dreams” (Bloomsbury Press, 2009) and “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

Postscript: Justice Reynoso passed away in May 2021. Among the tributes were the following: a great and lengthy tribute by Michael Stern in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on May 17, 2021 who said “Cruz was the most humble and sincere person I have ever met. His unpretentious decency sometimes concealed his unrelenting passion to bring legal equality to all…”

I enjoyed, in particular, a quote from Kevin Johnson, Dean of UC Davis School of Law: “He fought for the rights of all and, to paraphrase the late John Lewis, made plenty of ‘good trouble.'”

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