Remembering U.S. Chief Judge James De Anda | September 7, 2016
By J. Michael Solar
U.S. CHIEF JUDGE JAMES De ANDA, died on this day, the 7th of September 2006, at his summer home in Traverse City, Michigan. Judge De Anda, was 81.
As a pioneering civil rights lawyer in the early 1950’s, Judge De Anda initiated the legal challenge that ultimately culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited courts from keeping Mexican-Americans off of juries.
Chief Judge De Anda, was born on August 28, 1925, in Houston, Texas to Mexican immigrants from the State of Zacatecas, Mexico. His father was a railroad worker who never learned to speak English, yet was a great proponent of education.
De Anda attended Texas A&M University where in 1943 he observed Aggie Cadets receiving their diplomas and military commissions, and immediately marching off the field to awaiting trains that took them to war. De Anda immediately left A&M to join the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the South Pacific and then China. He returned to Texas A&M and graduated in 1948. Two years later, he earned a law degree at the University of Texas.
On May 3, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Hernandez v. Texas that Mexican Americans deserved the same constitutional protections as other minorities. For some proponents of civil rights for Mexican Americans, the case ranks with the ruling two weeks later in Brown v. Board of Education that barred segregation in public schools.
Chief Judge De Anda, then a lawyer in a small practice in Houston, recognized the constitutional issue, initiated the challenge and wrote most of the briefs for the Hernandez case, in which a Mexican migrant worker appealed his murder conviction by an all-white jury in Jackson County, Texas.
Chief Judge De Anda’s research showed that, despite the fact that Mexican-Americans made up 14 percent of the county’s population, not one person with a Spanish surname had been on a jury in 25 years. The case opened the doors for Latinos to be represented on juries throughout the country.
Texas officials had argued that Mexican Americans should be considered the same as Whites in considering representation. Chief Justice Earl Warren and the rest of the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Hernandez. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment protected those beyond the racial classes of White or Negro, and extended protection to other racial groups, such as Mexican-American in that case. The ultimate impact of the ruling was that thereafter all racial groups of the United States were protected under the 14th Amendment and thus earning Chief Judge De Anda a place in legal history for expanding the coverage of the 14th Amendment to all.
In another seminal case Chief Judge De Anda was also lead counsel in Hernandez v. Driscoll Independent School District, in which a federal court ordered the desegregation of so called “Mexican Schools” near Corpus Christi, Texas. Subsequently Chief Judge De Anda would challenge the jury selection process in that region that specified only land owners could serve on juries. He prevailed on his suit in federal court and that decision would soon be implemented across the state.
In the late 1960’s, after many years defending Mexican Americans in private practice, Chief Judge De Anda was a leader in the launching of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Texas Rural Legal Assistance Organization, which provides legal services to migrant workers.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed De Anda a federal judge in the Southern District of Texas. He retired in 1992, after serving his last four years as chief judge. He practiced at Solar & Ellis, and later Solar & Fernandes, where he would actively work until becoming ill.
Chief Judge James De Anda is the namesake of the annual scholarships awarded by the Hispanic Bar Association to Houston area law students thereafter known as De Anda scholars.