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Key ruling for Hispanics overshadowed by Brown v. Board of Education

Two weeks before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling 50 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled on a lesser-known case that opened the door for ethnic minorities other than African-Americans to combat civil rights infringements.

Except for civil rights attorneys, few have heard of Hernandez v. Texas, a case decided May 3, 1954, that recognized Latinos as "a class apart" meriting equal protection through the 14th Amendment. Brigham Young University history professor Ignacio Garcia is seeking to draw attention to the ruling -- he's at work on new book detailing how the murder trial of Pete Hernandez came to be one of the Warren Court's most influential rulings on civil rights.

"Before this case, the 14th Amendment only applied to blacks and whites," said Garcia, a professor of history and author of four earlier works on Mexican-American history. "Latinos didn't find it appealing to be considered one or the other. The law recognized them as whites, so 12 white guys qualified as a jury of peers for Hernandez."

Hernandez was a farm worker tried for murder by an all-white jury in Jackson County, Texas. That his story has not been told is no surprise: records from the original trial are missing, reporters were absent at the oral arguments before the Supreme Court because of a last-minute scheduling change, and the publicity surrounding the Brown case drowned out reaction to the Hernandez ruling.

"The case has grown in importance and is used today to combat the black or white binary view of American legal history and decision making," said Garcia. "If you study civil rights today, you only read about blacks even though Asians, Latinos and many other groups are a major part of our past."

Texas civil rights attorney Gus Garcia (no relation to Ignacio) assembled a legal team to volunteer their services in representing Hernandez. The Hernandez lawyers filed a pre-trial appeal documenting that of the 6,000 jurors called in 25 years in Jackson County, not one had a Spanish surname despite the county's substantial Latino population.

The appeal failed, as did a second attempt following the trial. Hernandez was convicted of the charge and sentenced to life in prison. As a last resort, the attorneys submitted their case to the Supreme Court, knowing they had almost no chance of having their case heard.

But the high court took on the case and the Hernandez attorneys headed to Washington, D.C., after scrambling to pay the required fee of $900. Professor Garcia contrasts the inexperienced and cash-strapped Hernandez team with the Brown legal camp, which reargued their case a month earlier and was able to attract seasoned Supreme Court attorneys and financial support.

"There was some cross-pollination between the two cases because the justices considered them at the same time," Garcia said. "The Brown case deserved all those resources, but it is interesting to see these other guys come along, share food and a small hotel room and get a one-day briefing on Supreme Court protocol."

Chief Justice Earl Warren, who would deliver the Brown opinion two weeks later, wrote the unanimous decision reversing the Hernandez conviction. While the ruling extended the 14th Amendment to Latinos as a class apart, the court skirted the issue of legally defining race.

"Scientifically defining race is extremely problematic and many scholars today view race as no more than a social construct," Garcia said. "This leaves Latinos still with an arduous burden of proof in discrimination cases."

Considering that the Census Bureau projects the Latino population to nearly triple by 2050, the puzzle over Latino legal identity does not appear to be going away. Harvard scholar Samuel P. Huntington has recently warned that the continual inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide America into two cultures, a concern Garcia does not necessarily reject.

"Huntington will be right if we continue to put up barriers to integration because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," Garcia said. "The question is whether we will defend America like Camelot or instead remind newcomers of America's fundamental values and give them the opportunity to learn those principles."

Writer: Joseph Hadfield