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From the President

Reflections on 50 years ago

By Luis J. Rodriguez
President, State Bar of California

Luis RodriguezWhen we think of 1963, many people talk about Nov. 22, the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Those who were alive at that time remember the exact place and time they were when they heard that the president had been shot. My mother, a young woman in her 20s, was working as a clerk at the Kress retail department store in El Paso, Texas. She remembers that day vividly.

She was behind the counter as the televisions on display for sale flashed the tragic news across the screen. People started to weep and gasped with horror at the news of the shooting in Dallas. The Kress employees were told that they could go home to their families. My mother was living in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua right across the border from El Paso. Unfortunately for my mother, the border was closed to everyone either coming from or going to Ciudad Juarez for a few days. She remembers that day very vividly, even after 50 years.

Yet there was another historic event that occurred 50 years ago. It is the landmark U. S. Supreme Court decision Gideon vs. Wainwright granting indigent criminal defendants the right under the 14th Amendment to have the state provide them counsel.

In early October, I received a letter from Bakersfield attorney Jeanne Rubin. She told me about how she was mentoring a 10-year-old boy, Emanuel G., who goes by Emy. Ms. Rubin talked about how Emy was excited when he found out through her that I was the first Latino to head the State Bar. She also wrote that Emy had, upon talking to Ms. Rubin, decided that he was going to write a research paper on Gideon vs. Wainwright, which we public defenders see as a historic cornerstone to our practice. She went on to write that Emy was hoping that he could interview me for his research paper. This turned out to be one of the most personally fulfilling favors that I have done.

A few weeks later, the three of us met for lunch. When I saw Ms. Rubin, I was moved because it was clear from her demeanor that she was a very special and caring person. Then I saw Emy. The young boy looked me straight in the eyes and with a firm handshake introduced himself. I felt that this was an old soul in a 10-year-old boy’s body. He moved me. As we sat for lunch, Emy told me about himself. His parents are from Mexico, and his father is a well-respected rancher’s assistant in the small town of Woody.

I asked Emy about his school and how big it was. As Emy sat for a few seconds counting out in his mind, he said, “Eight.” I thought that he meant that there were only eight kids in his fifth grade, but he corrected me and said, “No, there’s eight kids in the whole school.” We then talked about my background, and we found out that we had very similar backgrounds. I could now see in his eyes a sense of reassurance. He then pulled his audio recorder and list of questions.

For the next hour, as we enjoyed our burgers, we discussed what the Gideon case meant to me. All I could think in my mind was, “Wow, this kid is amazing, period!” After all the questions were answered, we talked about how he was going to enter his paper in a state competition, and how he hoped to make it to the finals. I selfishly felt that this brief lunch had made me feel good about taking time out to sit with him, but it was deeper than that. This lunch represented so many things that many of us have been working to accomplish.

Thereafter, thanks to fellow State Bar Trustee David Torres, Emy was able to interview Kern County Superior Court Judge Robert Tafoya and Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green. Finally, Ms. Rubin and Emy were able to track down Professor Bruce Jacob, who argued the Gideon case for the State of Florida before the U.S. Supreme Court. Both Emy and Ms. Rubin were walking in the clouds after meeting all these primary sources. It is difficult not to see all that can be taken from this encounter.

As a deputy public defender, I was moved by this young boy who wanted to learn about such a historic case. In Ms. Rubin, I saw a senior attorney who was taking great interest in an immigrant child, giving him  one more tool for his toolbox. In Emy, I saw our future – a child who sees education as a vehicle to better himself. Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye would be moved by a great example of civics education and lawyers giving back to the community. We are also reminded about the Civil Gideon effort, the need to provide counsel to the indigent in civil matters. So many worlds converged in a project by a young boy from Woody.

As we remember what occurred in Dallas and before the Supreme Court 50 years ago, we are also reminded by Emy and Ms. Rubin of what makes us strong, our American reality. The American dream is unique in that it is not germane just to immigrants. We all have it, so it is created by the individual, but the true measure of the success of the American dream is its realization. Therefore, the dream is realized not through the one, but through the support of the entire community.

This is what makes us strong.


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