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March 24, 2009

The Carlos Cadena Society and CHLSA host “A Class Apart” film screening featuring UT Law alumni and faculty, March 24, 2009

The Carlos Cadena Society and Chicano/Hispanic Law Students Association (CHLSA) at the University of Texas School of Law will show “A Class Apart,” a new PBS documentary about a landmark Latino civil rights case on Tuesday, March 24, 2009, in the Law School’s Francis Auditorium. UT Law alumni, including a group of Mexican American attorneys who changed history in 1954, and UT Law faculty are featured prominently in the one-hour film.

The event, which begins at 11:30 a.m. and is open to law students, includes a discussion by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Rose Spector about Carlos Cadena, a 1940 summa cum laude graduate of UT Law and editor of the Texas Law Review, a respected judge, and a civil rights crusader who is a central character in the film. One of the UT Law School’s societies is named in Cadena’s honor.

“A Class Apart” is about a team of unknown Mexican American lawyers from Houston and San Antonio, including Cadena, that took the case, Hernandez v. Texas, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they successfully challenged Jim Crow-style discrimination against Mexican Americans.

Three members of the litigation team in the Hernandez case were graduates of UT Law School: Carlos Cadena, ’40, Gus Garcia, ’38, and James DeAnda, ’50. The UT Law grads were the first Mexican Americans to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. The legal team also included attorney Chris Aldrete, a UT graduate, who worked on the Hernandez defense as the state director of the American GI Forum, and John J. Herrera, an experienced Houston trail attorney who authored the briefs for the case and later became president of the League of the United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

In the Hernandez case, the attorneys appealed the murder conviction of migrant worker Pete Hernandez by an all white jury. Because Hispanics had been excluded from serving on the Hernandez jury, the attorneys argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that their client was denied his right to a jury of his peers and therefore, the conviction was unconstitutional. Four months later, the attorneys won a landmark decision when the high court ruled in 1954 that Mexican Americans were “a class apart,” and deserved the same protections under the Constitution’s 14th amendment as other minorities.

Also featured in the film are various scholars including law and education professor Norma Cantu of the University of Texas at Austin. Cantu, who served as the Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights in the Clinton Administration, was interviewed about the history leading up to the Hernandez case at the Supreme Court, much of which is archived in collections at UT in the Benson Latin American Collection and the Tarlton Law Library. She was also interviewed about the importance of the testimony in Hernandez of Dr. George I. Sanchez, a UT professor who had researched the history of exclusion of Mexican Americans from Texas juries, and the impact of the ruling on following court cases.

In the film, Cantu talks about the significant expenses facing litigators pursuing an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. She also described the U.S. Supreme Court surroundings during the day of an oral argument. In 1954, there were no transcripts, video, or audio tapes made of oral arguments. Cantu said she based her statements on having observed several Supreme Court arguments, including those in which the U.S. Solicitor defended Title IX regulations and policies enforced by the U.S. Department of Education.

At the film’s screening, Justice Spector will discuss her professional relationship with Cadena and the impact he made on her life. “He was my professor in constitutional law when I was in law school in the sixties. He was brilliant, and he had a lot of common sense and a wonderful sense of humor,” Spector said recently about Cadena, who taught law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “He was an inspiration to all of us, both students and friends,” said Spector, who became friends with Cadena. “There weren’t that many women in law school when I went to law school and he was very supportive.”

Spector worked as a trial judge for eighteen years in San Antonio and as a district judge for twelve years in San Antonio. She then became the first woman to be elected to the Texas Supreme Court where she served from 1993 to 1998. Spector currently practices law in Austin with the firm Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP, teaches a course called “Trial by Jury” at UT Law as an adjunct professor, and serves as a senior visiting judge in trial and appellate courts.

In his early years, Cadena worked as assistant city attorney (and later city attorney) for San Antonio, was partner in a law firm, and taught law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Following the Hernandez case, he returned to the law faculty at St. Mary’s from 1961 until 1965, when then Texas governor John Connolly appointed him an associate justice on the 4th Court of Appeals, the first Mexican American to hold such a high ranking. He was named the Court’s chief justice in 1977, Texas’s first Latino chief justice, by then-governor Dolph Briscoe and held that position until his retirement in 1990 after twenty-five years on the bench. He continued to serve part time as a senior appellate justice, as well as acting of counsel to the San Antonio law firm of Charles A. Nicholson, until his death in 2001 at eighty-three. Cadena received many state and national awards during his more than fifty years of legal practice.

“A Class Apart” originally aired on PBS American Experience on February 23, 2009, and was directed and produced by award-winning filmmakers Carlos Sandoval and Peter Miller. For more about the film go to the PBS website at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/class/.

Contact: Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or kfortune@law.utexas.edu.