The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Hernandez v. Texas forced courts in Texas to stop what was then a common practice: summoning only white citizens for jury duty. The decision advanced the civil rights of Hispanics and other minorities in Texas and set a precedent for jury duty summons in other states. However, its impact was overshadowed by the Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, handed down in the same month, which required states to desegregate their public schools. Michael Olivas, who holds the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law and directs the Institution of Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston Law Center, believes the Hernandez decision deserves more attention from legal historians. He discussed the case’s history and impact in the 2011 Victor S. Johnson Lecture, which he delivered at the law school on September 26.
Professor Olivas drew the title and content for his lecture from his 2006 edited book of essays, “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aqui”: Hernandez v. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican American Lawyering. He recalled learning about the Hernandez case “by a complete fluke” in a conversion with retired federal Judge James de Anda, who had argued the case before the Supreme Court as a member of a team of four Mexican-American attorneys.
Olivas painted a bleak picture of the treatment of blacks and Hispanics in South Texas in 1950, when a Mexican-American man, Pete Hernandez, was tried for murder. “Sugar Land had the country’s largest prison, where the inmates were half black and half Mexican, all of whom worked for the sugar cane growers,” he said. Signs in the windows of local businesses reading “No Mexicans or dogs” were common. In a neighboring county, schools for Mexican-American children ended at sixth grade. While Hernandez’s guilt was not seriously in question, Hispanics were more likely to be convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to longer terms in Texas courts.
The Court’s decision in Hernandez overturned Hernandez’s murder conviction by an all-white jury on the grounds that a jury selection process that systematically excluded Mexican-Americans had denied Hernandez his right to be tried by a jury of his peers. “Although 17 percent of the county’s population was Mexican, of the over 12,000 jurors called in that county, not one had ever been Mexican,” Olivas said. The Court’s ruling directed the county to retry Hernandez with a desegregated jury.
Olivas took his book’s title directly from a sign Hernandez’s lawyers, Anicepto Sanchez and de Anda, then a fledgling attorney, encountered in the Sugar Land courthouse. The two Mexican-American attorneys were turned away from the men’s room on the courthouse’s main floor and directed instead to a basement bathroom designated for “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aqui.” To bolster their case, Sanchez and de Anda mentioned the separate restroom for minorities, ultimately escorting the judge—who was unaware of its existence—to the basement of the courthouse to see it for himself.
Olivas highlighted one favorable difference between the impact of the Court’s decisions in Brown and Hernandez. “States were told to desegregate their schools ‘with all deliberate speed,’ and that never was fully implemented,” he said. “Hernandez had the immediate effect of desegregating juries in Texas.” In addition, the fact that a team of four Mexican-American attorneys were able not only to argue Hernandez’s case before the Supreme Court, but also to win it, proves that “it is possible to tilt against windmills,” he said.
Each year, the Victor S. Johnson Lecture features a distinguished speaker who addresses a certain aspect of the law and its relation to public policy. The lecture series was endowed by Victor S. (Torry) Johnson III, Class of 1974, in honor of his grandfather.