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News Posted on September 19, 2007

Reynoso First Professor to Receive UC Davis Medal

Cruz Reynoso, a farmworker's son who rose from an Orange County barrio to become the first Latino to serve on the California Supreme Court, has received the UC Davis Medal, the highest tribute bestowed by the campus. Also in his honor, the UC Davis School of Law has established the Cruz and Jeannene Reynoso Scholarship for Legal Access. The tributes were announced at a celebration of Reynoso's lifetime achievements Saturday evening at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis.

A civil rights champion for most of his 76 years, Reynoso served three California governors and two U.S. presidents. He has been a member of the UC Davis School of Law faculty since 2001, when he joined the campus as the first person to hold the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality.

"Cruz Reynoso is one of the great civil rights leaders of the second half of the 20th century," said Rex Perschbacher, dean of the UC Davis School of Law. "Never forgetting the law's obligation to serve both the rich and the poor, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, he tirelessly worked on behalf of California's farmworkers and rural poor, both in private practice in the Imperial Valley and through his dynamic leadership of California Rural Legal Assistance."

The UC Davis Medal honors individuals of rare accomplishment. Past recipients include President Bill Clinton, astronaut and alumnus Stephen Robinson, and philanthropists Robert and Margrit Mondavi.

The new Cruz and Jeannene Reynoso Scholarship for Legal Access will help first-year students with financial needs attend the UC Davis School of Law.

"The creation of the Reynoso scholarship announces to students from families of all backgrounds that, if they are admitted, the UC Davis School of Law will help them," Perschbacher said. "It is a fitting tribute to Cruz and Jeannene Reynoso, who experienced firsthand the need for access scholarships."

The Mondavi Center ceremony was attended by key figures in California's labor and legal communities, including Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers, and José Padilla, executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance.

"As a farmworker on a dirt path, knocking doors as a community organizer, a people's attorney in California Rural Legal Assistance, Cruz's path for justice led him to the state's highest bench, the Supreme Court of California, where his gavel demanded fairness and equality," Huerta said.

Padilla credited Reynoso for building the CRLA into a premiere legal aid organization for the poor, and for setting a personal example for generations of Latinos.

"Cruz Reynoso was in the first generation of Latinos in this country to go off to university," Padilla said. "He was a trailblazer, who showed us we could be attorneys in the service of communities. He showed us we could lead, that we could strive to sit on the bench of the highest courts in the land.

"He has been the role model for my own leadership at CRLA, which survives today in large part because of his vision and strategic leadership during a very political time. As a founding board member and executive director, he led the organization to become a very aggressive law firm that defended the poor just the way any private law firm would defend the rich."

Reynoso was born on May 2, 1931, in Brea. One of 11 children, he started working in the fields and orchards when he was about nine. He picked oranges with his brothers in Southern California and traveled up and down the San Joaquin Valley with his parents in the summers, topping onions and picking plums and grapes, on one occasion until he was too exhausted and dehydrated to move.

The injustices he witnessed as a child -- from segregated schools to police misconduct -- kindled in him an early passion for righting wrongs. At about age 12, convinced it was unfair that his parents and their neighbors had to walk a mile or more to pick up their mail, he successfully petitioned the U.S. Postmaster General for rural delivery.

Reynoso earned an associate degree at Fullerton College and a bachelor's degree at Pomona College in Claremont, where he received a full scholarship. After two years in the Army's Counterintelligence Corps., he earned a law degree at UC Berkeley in 1958.

After law school, Reynoso settled with his wife in El Centro, where he built a private law practice and a reputation for fairness, integrity and results that led to prestigious appointments in Sacramento and Washington.

In Sacramento, he served as assistant director of the state Fair Employment Practices Commission and staff secretary to Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown. At the federal level, he served as associate general counsel to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission; as a member of the Select Commission on Immigration and Human Rights; and as a consultant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In the latter role, he participated in the first-ever federal hearings on the civil rights of Mexican Americans.

The opportunity to direct CRLA lured Reynoso back to California in 1969. Under his leadership, the pioneering legal services agency survived an attempt by then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan to eliminate its federal funding and won widespread acclaim for its efforts to serve the rural poor.

In 1972, Reynoso joined the law school of the University of New Mexico. He returned to California in 1976 to accept an appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown to the state Court of Appeal in Sacramento. Reynoso was the first Latino in California history to sit on that bench. In 1982, in another historic first, Brown appointed Reynoso to the California Supreme Court.

Reynoso brought new perspective to the state's highest court. In one notable instance, he persuaded his fellow justices to hear an appeal in which a defendant, who did not speak English, argued he should have had his own translator during his trial. Reynoso was able to speak from experience about the difficulty of translating for a client and representing him at the same time. The justices heard the case, and ruled that due process and fairness require translation for the accused as well as the court. Translation for the accused in court became the law of the land.

In 1986, following an unprecedented attack on one of the nation's most respected state supreme courts, Reynoso and two other justices failed to win confirmation at the polls. Reynoso returned to private practice for a brief time, then joined the faculty of the UCLA School of Law.

He also accepted an appointment to the California Postsecondary Education Commission and, for a decade that spanned the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, served as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

In 2000, President Clinton awarded Reynoso the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in recognition of his "compassion and work on behalf of the downtrodden."

Reynoso stepped down in December as the Boochever and Bird Chair at the UC Davis School of Law. As a professor emeritus, he will continue to teach classes and to write and comment on civil liberties, fair treatment for immigrants, and issues affecting Latinos, especially Mexican-Americans. He will also continue to advise the La Raza Law Students Association at UC Davis, promote public service among law students, and serve as a mediator and counselor on racial and ethnic issues campuswide.

UC Davis News & Information/September 19, 2007

Webcast of September 15, 2007 event.