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September 16, 2004

Press Contacts: Kirston Fortune, UT Law, (512) 232-1229, Jodi Bart, UT Law, (512) 471-7330

In Memoriam: The Honorable Reynaldo G. Garza, 1915-2004

Garza graduated from UT Law in 1939 and became the first Mexican American federal judge in the U.S. in 1961

Photo of The Honorable Reynaldo G. Garza from his 1939 Cactus Yearbook picture
Reynaldo G. Garza
Source: The 1939 Cactus Yearbook

AUSTIN, Texas — The Honorable Reynaldo G. Garza, an alumnus of The University of Texas School of Law who became the country’s first Mexican American federal judge when he was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Southern District Court in 1961, died of pneumonia in Brownsville, Texas, on Tuesday, Sept. 14. He was 89 years old.

Garza's parents, who moved to Texas 14 years before Reynaldo was born, raised their son in Brownsville. After earning both undergraduate and law degrees at UT, he returned to his hometown, began a law practice, and became the first Mexican American elected to the Brownsville school board in 1941. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army Air Force as an air gunnery instructor in Harlingen, Texas. In 1947, he was elected city commissioner of Brownsville. From 1950 to 1960, he was a partner with Sharpe, Cunningham & Garza, and in 1960-61 with Cunningham, Garza & Yznaga. He was appointed to the federal judgeship for the Southern District Court in 1961 and served as chief judge of the district from 1974 to 1979.

In 1976, President Jimmy Carter asked Garza to become U.S. Attorney General. Had he accepted, he would have become the first Mexican American member of a U.S. President’s Cabinet. Garza declined because the move to Washington, D.C., would impose too great a burden on his family. In 1979, Carter appointed Garza to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The appointment made him the first Mexican American to sit on that bench. He assumed senior status in 1982 and continued to work until a month before his death.

"Judge Garza's life and his more than forty years of service as a federal judge have left an indelible impression on the judiciary, and on everyone who met him. He was a great Texan and a great American," said Dean Bill Powers.

Garza has received many honors, including two decorations from Pope Pius XII for his leadership and service to the Catholic Church. Two elementary schools, one in Brownsville and another in McAllen, bear his name. He has been honored as a Distinguished Alumnus by both the UT Ex-Students Association (1989), and by the UT Law Alumni Association (1994).

Judge Garza is survived by his wife of 61 years, Bertha Champion Garza; a sister, Argentina Garza; sons, Reynaldo G. Garza Jr. (Trudy), David C. Garza (Diane) and Ygnacio D. Garza (Sylvia); daughters, Bertha Elizondo (Gustavo) and Monica Garza all of Brownsville. Survivors also include 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

His family requests that, In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to The Reynaldo G. Garza Endowed Scholarship at The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, 80 Ft. Brown, Brownsville, TX 78520 or to The St. Joseph Academy Building Fund, 101 St. Joseph Dr., Brownsville, TX 78520.