Pomona Alumnus Cruz Reynoso Receives Judicial Award

The California State Bar awarded Cruz Reynoso PO ’53 the Witkin Medal in early September, citing his “significant contributions to the quality of justice and legal scholarship.”Established in 1993 and named after esteemed legal scholar Bernard E. Witkin, the medal recognizes those who have had a lasting impact on California jurisprudence.“Justice Reynoso has been a champion on the side of providing full access to justice to all throughout his career,” said State Bar President Holly Fujie in a press release. “This medal simply celebrates his unfaltering commitment to the justice system and his extraordinary efforts to obtain equal rights for all of us.”In addition to being the first Latino to serve on the California Supreme Court, Reynoso has held a wide variety of judicial, administrative, and academic positions. His work on behalf of the impoverished and underrepresented earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, the nation’s highest civilian honor.“I’ve been involved in the issues of social justice; that is, not just justice in the legal sense, but justice in the way people live and the way people are treated,” said Reynoso. “It has to do not just with the law, but with economics, the criminal justice system, poverty—all these issues that go to having a society that is truly just.”Reynoso grew up with 10 siblings in Orange County, Calif., where he helped his parents with their farm work.He attended Pomona College on a full scholarship and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in History in 1953. After working for the Army Counter Intelligence Corps for two years, he matriculated at the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC-Berkeley.He then worked to establish his law firm in El Centro, Calif., a period he recalls as one of the happiest of his life.In the mid-1960s, Reynoso accepted a series of government appointments in Sacramento, first as assistant director of the California Fair Employment Practices Commission, and then as staff secretary to California Governor Edmund Brown.Reynoso soon moved to Washington, D.C., where he served as associate general counsel to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He was also a member of the Select Commission on Immigration and Human Rights and a consultant to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.In 1968, he moved back to California in order to help form the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA).“In terms of my career as a lawyer, the highlight clearly was working with the CRLA,” Reynoso said. “The idea was to represent poor people in individual cases but also to represent them at the legislature, in class action suits, in everything necessary to elevate the quality of life of poor people in rural California. Folks were suddenly awakened to the reality that poor people could actually protect their rights, and to me that was just a giant step forward.”His work at the CRLA led to two groundbreaking appointments first to the California Courts of Appeal in 1976 and then to the State Supreme Court in 1982. He was the first Latino to hold both positions.“I never expected to be appointed to the judiciary,” Reynoso said. “I was always filing highly controversial lawsuits, and I figured, people like me don’t get to be appointed judges.”Often providing insight on issues affecting racial minorities, Reynoso served on the State Supreme Court until 1986, when a highly unusual public campaign against him and two of his colleagues led to their defeat at the polls.After briefly returning to private practice, Reynoso joined the faculty of the UCLA School of Law. He also served as vice chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and chair of the California Post-Secondary Education Commission.In 2001, Reynoso became the inaugural Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality at UC-Davis. More recently, he served on President Obama’s transition team as an advisor on justice and civil rights.Reynoso is a guiding member of California Forward, a bi-partisan organization seeking to reform and restructure the state government. In the last month, Reynoso signed on as chair of an independent civil rights commission that will investigate the April killing of a Chicano farmer, Luis Gutierrez, by sheriff’s deputies. On a larger scale, the commission will look at the broader intersection of race and law enforcement.“I’m afraid that I have a few too many things going on,” Reynoso said. “But these are all things on which I have strong feelings.”

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