Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email
MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Luis Rodriguez: First Latino bar president paves the way forward

By Susan McRae
Special to the Bar Journal

State Bar President-elect Luis J. Rodriguez doesn’t go in for fancy trappings. A 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles County public defender’s office, he keeps his surroundings spartan and utilitarian ― a desk, a few chairs, law books and a small conference table.

But Rodriguez, 46, the first Latino and first lawyer from the public defender’s office to head the 244,000-member organization, does pay attention to history.

Luis Rodriguez
Attorney Luis Rodriguez, incoming president of the California State Bar, left, talks with fellow attorney Mark Harvis in his office in downtown Los Angeles.                                       
                                        Photo by Stephanie Diani

A poster on one wall commemorates the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to the establishment of state public defender offices. The ruling stems from the petition of Clarence Earl Gideon, a petty thief who insisted that criminal defendants have a right to legal representation, whether they can afford it or not.

Another wall displays a collage featuring labor leader and Latino civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Opposite is a small bas relief of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, a controversial folk hero and one-time governor of Chihuahua, the Mexican state where Rodriguez spent his formative years.

“Some people say these figures contradict themselves, or maybe they wouldn’t sit at the same dinner table if they were living at the same time,” Rodriguez says. “For me, it’s an appreciation of history. You can’t sit there and judge an individual just because of their political affiliation or something they did that wasn’t necessarily popular. But you look at the impact the person had on society, the type of change that the impact created.”

On Oct. 12, Rodriguez will have an opportunity to make his own impact when he’s sworn in as the 89th president at the State Bar Annual Meeting in San Jose, a milestone that is eagerly anticipated by legal and Latino communities at home and abroad.

“There’s so many firsts that Luis is shattering,” said Paul Kiesel, a partner at Beverly Hills’ Kiesel & Larson LLP.

“He’s the first Latino, which is so appropriate in California. And I’m thrilled because he’s actively engaged with the bar’s Open Courts Coalition,” an advocacy group Kiesel co-chairs that lobbies for better court funding.

Rodriguez, who’s a past president of the Mexican American Bar Association of Los Angeles County and of the California La Raza Lawyers Association, will also be only the second president in the bar’s history to come from the public sector. Karen Nobumoto, a deputy district attorney, now retired, became the first in 2001.

“We need to have different perspectives in the State Bar presidency,” said Holly Fujie, a past State Bar president and now a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. “It’s great to have someone like Luis, who’s devoted his life to public service, to give of his time.

“He’s able to deal well with the different personalities involved in the State Bar and also to plan so that his objectives are met.”

Already, Rodriguez noted that his election in July by the board of trustees has brought a new dynamic to the organization.

He recently returned from a speaking engagement to members of the Supreme Court of the Mexican state of Jalisco, who wanted to learn about the California bar’s structure. He said the invitation is one of many similar requests he’s received over the past several months.

His pending presidency also has drawn interest from the Mexican, Central and South American consulates in Los Angeles, which he said have signaled that Rodriguez’s bicultural and bilingual background has inspired them to interact with the bar on a more formal level.

Luis Rodriguez and family
Attorney Luis Rodriguez (left), incoming president of the State Bar, and his wife Yolanda Sanchez (right), talk about the Rodriguez' plans for his presidency in the family's home near downtown Los Angeles. Their two daughters, Tatiana, 4, and Natalia, 10, sit between them.
                                                   Photo by Stephanie Diani

Rodriguez listed three priorities among his many duties in the year ahead. At the top, he said, is trial court funding, followed closely by oversight of those providing immigration services with the anticipated passage of federal reform legislation. A third prime concern the bar needs to address, he said, is the problem of law student debt.

Born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrants, Rodriguez moved as a toddler with his parents to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, where the family cared for his ailing grandmother. They returned to Los Angeles about 10 years later, where Rodriguez attended public schools.

“I guess you could call me a reverse immigrant in that I was born here but…my parents moved back to Mexico when I was 2 or 3, and I went to kindergarten and half of the fifth grade there.”

Living in Juarez, Rodriguez recalls experiencing prejudice at an early age. He said he distinctly remembers an incident when police officers across the border in El Paso, Texas pulled his father over for a traffic violation and began mocking his Mexican accent. Similar memorable incidents happened to Rodriguez after the family returned to California. When he lived in the modest Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, Rodriguez recalls officers more than once stopping him and his friends as they drove through the nearby affluent enclave of San Marino, ordering them out of the car while police conducted a search.

Experiences such as those not only spawned his interest in becoming a lawyer, he said, but also in getting involved in the social and political structure of the community and country.

“I wanted to be in a position where I could help people just like me, who didn’t grow up in an affluent neighborhood, whose parents weren’t sophisticated enough to speak out for themselves,” he said. “It matured and evolved into really appreciating what democracy is all about. It may sound kind of hokey, but what I value most is the Constitution and what it stands for. The fact that we are able to question authority in a civilized manner and hopefully not be afraid of persecution.

“So, for me, having lived in a society that called itself a democracy ― that being Mexico ― and seeing the corruption that it had, and then seeing the inequities in this society [in the U.S.], it was a natural step eventually to go to law school.”

The oldest of three brothers, Rodriguez was the first in his family to attend college. He received his undergraduate degree from Santa Clara University and law degree from the same campus. While awaiting the bar results, he clerked for the federal public defender’s office in Los Angeles and for a private firm. He joined the Los Angeles County public defender’s office in 1994, rising over the years from deputy defender to division chief.

Even before becoming a lawyer, Rodriguez said he recognized the importance of getting involved. In high school, he formed a group to encourage Hispanic students to prepare for college. As a lawyer, he continued to speak to high school students about college and careers. He helped set up teen peer review courts and became president of the Latino Public Defenders Association. His activities eventually took him to Sacramento, where he lobbied on behalf of the public defender’s office. His volunteer commitment caught the eye of Michael Judge, the Los Angeles County public defender who had hired him.

Judge, who retired in 2010, said he was hoping that a new generation of leaders would emerge and that Rodriguez was “one of a few people who really stood out.” Rodriguez, he said, was a reliable force to represent the public defender’s office in court and to also handle lobbying in Sacramento with issues that would help guide the office into the next century.

“You see people who hang out at every political event with no entrée, no credibility,” Judge said, “but when [Rodriguez] was there, there was always an agenda that he thought needed to be talked about and followed up on.”

Rodriguez’s interests didn’t stop at promoting the public defender’s office but extended to the overall issue of justice on both ends of the spectrum. When Steve Cooley, a Republican, ran for Los Angeles County district attorney, Rodriguez, a Democrat, publicly supported him during his first campaign and subsequent re-elections, citing what he termed Cooley’s more sensible stand on three-strikes and extradition.

“I got a lot of flak from fellow public defenders saying, ‘How can you support a prosecutor?’ and I said, ‘How could I not?’ We have to work together … or the system is going to fail.” Later, he said, other Democrats and public defenders joined in support.

Although Rodriguez’s State Bar leadership role will demand much of his time in the coming year, like his predecessors, he’s still expected to keep up his day job. Just last month, he began a new assignment overseeing the appellate division, mental health court, paralegal unit and sexually violent predator program — a steep learning curve, he says, in unfamiliar territory.

Yet, the added responsibilities seem only to invigorate him, and his open and relaxed manner belies his busy schedule.

That easygoing style spills over into his home life, as well. He and his wife, Yolanda Sanchez, an administrator in the county health department, who was also born in Los Angeles and grew up in Mexico, live with their children Natalia, 10, and Tatiana, 4, in a spacious and airy Spanish-style home in the Monterey Hills. In their backyard overlooking the San Gabriel Mountains, the girls show off a small garden that sports a couple of impressive-looking cantaloupes almost ripe for picking.

Being the father of two daughters, it’s not surprising that one of Rodriguez’s main concerns is women’s rights. He said he’s looking forward to having his daughters stand beside him when Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye administers the oath.

“It will be an opportunity for them to see strong women in my area of the profession,” he said. He added that he’s hoping they’ll also get a chance to meet U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor one day. “I think it’s important for young women to start thinking about taking leadership roles and knowing that they don’t need a male blessing to be able to participate and to be successful.”

Summing up the year ahead, current bar president Patrick Kelly observed how the organization has changed. Among its accomplishments, he cited a renewed emphasis on public protection and outreach, an effort to encourage civility among attorneys and the lack of a backlog in attorney discipline cases.

“I know I can count on the new trustees,” Kelly said of the changing makeup and focus of the board. “It’s a different bar in terms of commitment and public outreach, and Luis is an integral part of that.”

—    Susan McRae is a freelance writer who has covered the California legal community for 20 years.