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Cruz Reynoso, a UC Davis and California Icon, Dies at Age 90

News Posted on May 8, 2021

By Carla Meyer 

Cruz Reynoso, the trailblazing lawyer, jurist and law professor and the first Latino California Supreme Court justice, has died at age 90.

Justice Reynoso passed away on May 7 at an elder care facility in Oroville, according to his family. Cause of death had not been determined.

A UC Davis School of Law professor from 2001-06, he remained devoted to the law school, and the University of California, as an emeritus professor, teaching students, speaking at events and leading special projects until recently. To the King Hall community, he was the civil rights icon who always had a moment to talk in the halls, about the law, public service or just how things were going in your life.

“The passing of Cruz Reynoso is a deeply felt loss for the UC Davis community,” Chancellor Gary S. May said. “He was not only a towering figure in civil rights law, but a humble and dedicated professor who connected strongly with our students and faculty. His dedication to our campus will be remembered and his impact will endure.”

"Cruz Reynoso was a national treasure and civil rights icon, not just for Latina/os but for everyone," Dean Kevin R. Johnson said. "He dedicated his life to equality and justice for all. UC Davis School of Law is proud that he ended his professional career as part of our community, and was an inspiration to all." 

Born into a farmworker family, Justice Reynoso spent a lifetime fighting the prejudices he first encountered during his childhood in Southern California. He spent five decades working in public service, advocating for workers, immigrants and the indigent before becoming the first Latino member of the state Supreme Court in 1982, and the recipient, in 2000, of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. 

Among his many accolades, Justice Reynoso also received the highest honors bestowed by UC Davis (the UC Davis Medal) and the Hispanic National Bar Association (the Lincoln-Juarez Award). 

“I became a lawyer because I saw so many injustices,” Reynoso said simply, in a 2019 profile published in UC Davis Law’s Counselor alumni magazine. 

Soft-spoken, with a gentle demeanor, Justice Reynoso would become more forceful when what he called his “justice bone” was tweaked.  

It developed early, when he recognized that the grade school he attended in then-rural Orange County was a segregated school for children of Mexican descent. 

“They told us we had to attend that school to learn English,” he recalled in the Counselor. “But my brothers and I already spoke English. That didn’t make sense.” 

Reynoso later would protest a segregated dance at a local club, and the post office’s failure to deliver mail to the Latino barrio where his family lived. He wrote out a petition, gathered signatures, and successfully lobbied the U.S. Postmaster General in Washington, D.C., for rural mail delivery. 

This boyhood success helped motivate him to “keep doing things that needed to be done,” he told the California Bar Journal in 2009. 

He attended community college, then Pomona College, graduating in 1953. After serving two years in the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, he enrolled at UC Berkeley School of Law, where he was the only Latino in his 1958 graduating class. 

Justice Reynoso and his wife, Jeannene, moved to El Centro, in California’s Imperial Valley, where he started his own practice. He soon joined the local chapter of the Community Service Organization, the Latino civil rights organization where a young César Chávez was staff director. 

Early in his career, he also worked as staff secretary in Gov. Pat Brown’s office, and associate general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. 

In 1968, at the height of the farm labor movement led by Chávez and Dolores Huerta, Justice Reynoso became the first Latino director of California Rural Legal Assistance nonprofit. He oversaw eventually successful efforts to ban the short-handled hoe, which required farm workers to stoop and led to debilitating back problems, and DDT, the deadly agricultural chemical.

He entered legal academia in 1972, as one of the first Latino professors of law at the University of New Mexico. But a second governor named Brown – Pat’s son, Jerry – would bring him back to California in 1976 with an appointment to the Court of Appeals, Third Appellate District.

He had considered one day becoming a judge back when he was at CRLA, Reynoso told the Counselor, but was convinced he was too much of a “trouble-making lawyer for that.” But “Jerry Brown had other ideas.”  Reynoso, Jeannene and their four children moved to a 30-acre ranch in Sacramento County where they had horses, chickens and other animals. 

In 1981, Brown appointed Reynoso to the California Supreme Court. There, Justice Reynoso said, he was able to “make decisions based on what is right and lawful, and not worry about what people think.” 

But in 1986, a conservative movement, stoked by Attorney General turned Gov. George Deukmejian, helped convince voters to oust the so-called “Bird Court,” led by Chief Justice Rose Bird. Bird, Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, the court’s three liberal justices, were forced out.

The well-funded recall effort had accused the three of being soft on crime and failing to enforce the death penalty.

Justice Reynoso had voted to uphold California’s death penalty, but the avalanche of criticism buried his judicial record, which included extending environmental protections and individual liberties and protecting civil rights.

The politicizing of the judiciary is a major flaw in the governmental system of checks and balances, he told the Counselor: “Judges should not be thinking about the next election when they are making court decisions."

In 1991, Justice Reynoso re-entered academia as a professor at UCLA School of Law. While at UCLA, he also began what would become an 11-year stint on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where he served as vice chairman. 

During his service, the commission looked at a range of issues: from civil unrest following a Ventura County jury’s acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King to voting irregularities in Florida in the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Reynoso criticized that election, saying the “greatest sin” was that people were not allowed to vote. 

In 2001, Kevin R. Johnson, then associate dean of UC Davis Law, worked with Dean Rex Perschbacher to bring Reynoso to UC Davis. The inaugural holder of the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality, Reynoso quickly became an integral part of the King Hall community. 

Justice Reynoso taught in the areas of civil rights, professional responsibility, appellate advocacy, constitutional law and remedies. He retired in 2006 but remained an active emeritus for many years, availing his wisdom to any student who sought advice. Johnson interviewed Justice Reynoso post-retirement for the UC Davis Faculty Emeriti Association's video records project. 

In 2011, then-University of California President Mark Yudof tapped Justice Reynoso to lead a task force to investigate the pepper spraying of students by UC Davis police after a days-long “Occupy” movement on the UC Davis Quad.

The panel, which became known as the Reynoso Task Force, concluded in April 2012 that officers’ use of pepper spray was unjustified. The university responded to this report and other studies with various reforms in place today. 

Justice Reynoso was the subject of an award-winning 2010 documentary “Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice.” A premiere at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre drew state legislators and UC Davis Law alums including Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye ’84, who would follow Justice Reynoso to the state Supreme Court, where she became the first Filipina American and second woman Chief Justice.

Justice Reynoso’s legacy has been celebrated widely by UC Davis and the larger Northern California legal community. In 2007, he received the UC Davis Medal. In 2016, the Sacramento area Latinx bar association renamed itself the Cruz Reynoso Bar Association. Each year, the group gives out a Defensor de Justicia award. Past winners include Johnson and then-state Attorney General, now U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.   

In 2018, UC Davis Law's La Raza Law Students Association (later renamed the Latinx Law Students Association) presented Reynoso with the inaugural Cruz Reynoso Award for faculty members, given in subsequent years to other professors.

Preceded in death by Jeannene, in 2007, and by his second wife, Elaine Rowen, in 2017, Justice Reynoso is survived by four brothers, four sisters, four children and their spouses (Trina and Duane Heter, Ranene and Bob Royer, Len and Kym ReidReynoso, Rondall and Pamela Reynoso), two stepchildren and their spouses (Dean and Laudon Rowen, Hali Rowen and Andy Bale), 17 grandchildren, three step grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

His family asks that in lieu of flowers, those inclined can contribute to the Cruz and Jeannene Reynoso Scholarship for Legal Access at UC Davis Law. Memorial arrangements are pending.

Karen Nikos-Rose of the UC Davis Office of Strategic Communications contributed to this story.