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After 10 long years, Carlos Ortiz can almost taste victory in his campaign to have a Hispanic named to the U.S. Supreme Court. Conventional wisdom, backed by near-promises from both major presidential candidates, has it that the next vacancy — or, at the very latest, the next vacancy after that — will be filled by a Hispanic, the biggest ethnic minority not yet represented on the nation’s highest court. “I’m not only hopeful, I just can’t imagine the next vacancy going to anyone but a Hispanic-American,” says Ortiz, past president of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) and current chair of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF). “It is the single most unifying issue in the history of the Hispanic community.” Nan Aron of Alliance for Justice, a longtime veteran of judicial confirmation battles, agrees that “the stars have aligned themselves” for a Hispanic to be named. “It’s an idea whose time has come.” Hispanic judges now populate the upper echelons of the list of potential nominees for both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, both of whom are actively courting the 20 million voting-age Hispanics in America. Ortiz is general counsel of Goya Foods Inc., the largest Hispanic-owned retail company in America, with headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., above a warehouse full of canned beans and olive oil. But for the last decade, Ortiz has held another, unofficial job — principal advocate for the appointment of a Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Yet, even with victory seemingly close at hand, Ortiz is not taking it for granted. He needs only to look at the wall of his office, which has been ground zero for the campaign, to be reminded of past disappointments. There hang photographs of White House meetings between Ortiz and President George Bush (1992), Vice President Gore (1994), and President Bill Clinton (1999). At those and countless other meetings in between with White House and Justice Department officials, Ortiz was given reason to hope that his dream of seeing a Hispanic named to the Supreme Court would come true. Each time, it didn’t. “They talked a good game,” says Ortiz. “It may be too harsh a word to use, but we’ve been duped.” HISPANIC COMMUNITY CALLED TOO FRACTURED The story of what has taken so long — why no Hispanic was named to the high court before now — shows how politics and misperceptions have influenced the appointment process and still could. Scholars and justices say that being named to the Supreme Court has all the predictability of a lightning strike. But what has kept the lightning from striking a Hispanic? One of the first obstacles that Ortiz ran into when he began his campaign in the early 1990s was the perception that the Hispanic community, with its Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, and Cuban-American components among others, was too fractured to unite behind a single Hispanic candidate for a Supreme Court vacancy. Ortiz remembers a meeting in July 1991 when Bush White House officials asked the Hispanic legal community to rally behind the nomination of Clarence Thomas. “They sat at the table and asked for our endorsement,” Ortiz recalls. Before making any commitments on Thomas, the Hispanic leaders on hand let it be known that they were disappointed that no Hispanic had been considered. “They told us that if the Hispanic community would unite, it would happen,” he says. “We were shocked. We took it as a challenge to unite as never before.” When he became president of the Hispanic bar group, Ortiz named an ethnically diverse committee of Hispanics to draw up a list of possible Supreme Court nominees. The committee was finalizing the list at a Washington hotel room in March 1993, when word came that Byron White was retiring from the Court. The list was submitted to President Clinton 10 days later, and again hopes rose. Hispanic leaders met with Clinton in June, but a few days later Clinton named Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the high court. Hispanics were disappointed, says Ortiz, “but we couldn’t argue with the choice of Ginsburg.” Next time, they hoped, would be the Hispanics’ turn. When Harry Blackmun announced his retirement in 1994, the Hispanic groups — including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Puerto Rican and Cuban groups, the umbrella National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and the National Council of La Raza — held joint press conferences to demonstrate unity. Word came from the White House that Jose Cabranes, then chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Connecticut, was on the short list to replace Blackmun. When Stephen Breyer was finally named instead, it became apparent that Cabranes had not been seriously considered. “Breyer was another rich white male,” says Ortiz. “He was a guy you couldn’t argue with on the merits. He was qualified, but he brought nothing else to the table. So the reaction was outrage, not disappointment.” There was outrage also because once again, disunity among Hispanics was cited as a reason for Cabranes’ failure to make the cut. Cabranes, born in Puerto Rico, was said to be opposed by Mexican-American groups. Marisa Demeo, regional counsel in MALDEF’s Washington office, recalls that “we didn’t formally oppose Cabranes, but we were not wholehearted in our support. There were some concerns that he was not as progressive on the issues as we would have liked. Those concerns were mischaracterized as some kind of inter-ethnic conflict.” She adds, “We would love to see a Hispanic on the Supreme Court, but not at all costs.” Those concerns about Cabranes persist, as part of another shibboleth Hispanic groups have had to combat — that there is no single, obvious choice among potential Hispanic nominees. “There’s a perception that there’s no Hispanic Thurgood Marshall,” says one liberal activist who requested anonymity. “Cabranes has tried to be too many things to too many people.” It is often noted that Cabranes was believed to be on President Bush’s list of potential nominees as well as President Clinton’s. Ortiz has difficulty with the notion that there should be a Hispanic Thurgood Marshall. “It would be tough to find one,” he says. “Our people have not been enslaved.” But he says Cabranes, as a founder of PRLDEF and an early leader of ASPIRA, which aids Hispanic youth, “is probably as close to Thurgood Marshall as you can get.” STANDING TOGETHER ON SUPREME COURT ISSUE As frustrating as the 1990s were for Hispanic groups eyeing the Supreme Court, they laid the foundation for the current optimism about prospects for a Hispanic nominee under the next administration. After years of saying so, Hispanic groups truly seem to be united and ready to do battle for almost any of the often-mentioned Hispanic candidates — “anyone short of a Hispanic Clarence Thomas,” as one Hispanic leader put it. Hispanic groups were instrumental in persuading the Senate to confirm Richard Paez for a seat on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March, after he languished for more than four years. “That was really pulled off by the Hispanic groups all coming together,” says MALDEF’s Demeo. “The Hispanic legal community has come into its own and is flexing its muscles,” adds Aron. In addition, while Hispanics were passed over for the Supreme Court, many more have been appointed to lower federal courts, seeding the judiciary with potential nominees for years to come. Another reason cited in the past for the failure to nominate a Hispanic was the small number of Hispanic judges with experience. But that dearth is over. Clinton has named 22 Hispanic judges during his tenure, including several who were spotlighted in earlier HNBA lists of potential Supreme Court nominees. Bush, during his four years in the Oval Office, appointed eight Hispanics to the federal bench. The number of Hispanics on state courts is also rising –including judges named in Texas by Gov. George W. Bush. “There’s a very strong list now,” says W. Frank Newton, dean of Texas Tech University School of Law and an expert on both the state and federal judiciary in Texas, where many Hispanics sit. “Any suggestion that there is not a wealth of qualified Hispanic candidates nationwide would be predicated in prejudice.” What would the appointment of a Hispanic justice mean to the Court and to the Hispanic community? “It shouldn’t matter. A judge should be a judge. But it does matter,” says Ortiz. A Hispanic justice could bring a different perspective to issues ranging from immigration to civil rights. And beyond that, says Ortiz, the symbolism would be tremendous. “The rest of the country would recognize that Hispanic Americans are equals. If a Hispanic can sit at that level, you know how many doors of opportunity would open. Respect is what it all boils down to.” Finally, respect is what the Hispanics appear to have. According to an August article in Hispanic Link Weekly Report, a Hispanic official in the Bush campaign said at an election issues forum that Bush had told him personally that he would name the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court. “You can take that to the bank,” the official said, although a Bush spokesman later said the candidate has not indicated whom he would appoint. A Gore campaign spokesman told the forum that one or more of the next four Supreme Court appointments would “probably” be Hispanic. To make sure Hispanics are not passed over the next time, the Hispanic National Bar Association has reactivated the committee first created by Ortiz to come up with a new short list of potential candidates. The current list, several years old, needs updating and will be revised by year’s end, says President Rafael Santiago. Leading the committee will be Alice Velazquez of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Roberta Sistos of San Diego. At the association’s annual convention in Chicago last month, Santiago told the 700 members gathered, “We have exceptional legal minds in our ranks. We are more than qualified to take on the challenges presented to a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.” And Santiago added, “I expect to be standing in front of you next year in Philadelphia next to the first Hispanic-American justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The time is here and the time is now.”

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