April 28, 2000

Judged and Confirmed: The Trials of Judge Richard Paez

By Julie Amparano

Judge Richard Paez is a man of many distinctions.

He was the first Mexican-American appointed to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Paez had only been on the federal bench two years when President Clinton nominated him to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And he has the dubious distinction of waiting longer than anyone in the past 100 years to have his appeals court nomination confirmed.

After four-years of foot dragging, the United States Senate finally confirmed 52-year-old Paez on March 9, 2000, to the 9th Circuit, ending a tortuous journey into the netherworld of Senate politics and a bitterly polarized and partisan judicial selection process that some allege is tinged with racism.

His confirmation should never have been delayed, said Juan Carlos Benitez, the Hispanic National Bar's White House Liaison. "Judge Paez has an exemplary legal career."

He received his law degree from the University of Berkeley. Before becoming a judge, he spent six years with public interests firms including the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the Western Center on Law in Poverty in Los Angeles. He served on the Los Angeles Municipal Court and the U.S. District Court.

A survey of 15 legal experts who reviewed Paez's rulings found the judge to be "scholarly and thorough." Only two disagreed. The survey was conducted for the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Paez also has handled high-profile cases. Most recently, he presided over the case against Buford Furrow, the alleged white supremacist who could face the death penalty in the shooting death of a postal worker and a shooting spree at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles. And he presided over the cases against Maria Hsia and John Huang. Both were involved in Democratic Party fund-raising scandals.

Despite the protracted partisan wrangling, Paez's support crossed the political and legal spectrum. The Senate received letters from prominent Republican leaders, Democrats, civil rights groups, judges, bar associations, law enforcement officials and lawyers who brought cases before Paez.

One letter came from two opposing lawyers in a dispute between insurance companies. In the letter, Attorney Richard Burdge wrote: "He was fair to both sides, considered and tested our arguments and promptly came to decisions...That type of performance has justly earned him the respect of the commercial bar."

Manfredo Lespier, a Hispanic National Bar Association regional president, said the letter proved how highly Paez is regarded.

Lespier, who worked hard for Paez's confirmation, said, "If you have a trial of impact, you want to appear before him because you know he will be fair."

So how could this happen to Paez?

His supporters, including President Clinton, suggested that bigotry played a role. They point to the relatively small number of Latinos, blacks and Asian-Americans on the federal bench.

"Make no mistake about it, his confirmation was held up because he was Hispanic," said Alexander Sanchez, executive director of the Hispanic National Bar Association. "What they did to him is worse than foot dragging. It was a campaign of lies and exaggeration."

Marisa Demeo, regional counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, blamed the delay on misrepresentations that labeled Paez a liberal and activist.

For instance, Paez was harshly criticized for several comments made during a lecture at the Boalt Hall Law School at the University of California at Berkeley in 1995. In discussing the importance of a diverse bench in maintaining public confidence in California's judiciary, Paez noted: "The Latino community has, for some time now, faced heightened discrimination and hostility, which came to a head with the passage of Proposition 187. The proposed anti-civil rights initiative will inflame the issues all over again...."

Those words came back to haunt him during the Senate hearings. At one point, Paez apologized for his remarks and said: "I think mainly I what I was trying to reflect was frustration and concern because it (Proposition 209) had fallen on the heels of 187, which raised a lot of debate."

Criticism against Paez angered NCLR President Raul Yzaguirre, who said Paez's comments pale in comparison to statements made by other judges. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said in a speech: "absolutely plain there is no right to die."

Hispanic National Bar Association President-elect Rafael Santiago said he dreams of the day when such double standards are eliminated.

"We look forward to a time when Hispanic judges are not viewed in a more critical manner than are other Circuit Court nominations."

Paez will be the first Latino judge on the 9th Circuit. The appointment is significant for other reasons, as well. Experts say it's a place where presidents often turn to when seeking Supreme Court nominees.

About Paez

Born: May 5, 1947, in Salt Lake City, Utah

Undergraduate: Brigham Young University, June 1969

Law school: University of California at Berkeley (Boalt Hall), June 1972

Career track: California Rural Assistance, staff attorney, 1972-1974; Western Center for Law and Poverty, staff attorney, 1974-1976; Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, senior counsel, 1976-1978; Los Angeles Municipal Court, judge, 1981-1988; Los Angeles Municipal Court, presiding judge, 1988-1994; U.S. District Court, judge, 1994-2000; Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, judge, 2000.

(Reprinted from Politico Magazine - The Source for Latino Politics and Culture V3-23 4/25/00 www. politicomagazine.com)

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