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Hispanics’ economic and political power is growing nationwide, but the legal community does not yet reflect that influence, says Hispanic National Bar Association President Angel G. Gomez. Gomez oversees an organization that was once small enough to fit in a space “no bigger than a conference room.” Today, the HNBA represents more than 25,000 Hispanic lawyers, judges, law professors and students, and holds a seat in the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates. The organization held its annual convention last week at Atlanta’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. It’s a sign of the organization’s growing influence that U.S. Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson and other high-ranking officials addressed its members last week. Nonetheless, Hispanics still are underrepresented in the legal community, Gomez said. There aren’t enough Hispanic partners at major firms, and not enough Hispanics at the top of their profession in academia or in public service. Gomez points to the nomination of Miguel A. Estrada to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, as an example of what Hispanics often face when trying to achieve high legal office. Estrada’s nomination has been stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than a year. Hispanic nominees “are used as political pawns by both parties,” he said. “It’s unfair to hold Hispanic nominees to a higher level of scrutiny,” he said. “It’s always a controversy.” Gomez said that Hispanic judicial nominees seem to be subjected to more unforgiving tests of political orthodoxy, both from the right and the left. ESTRADA DIVIDES HISPANIC GROUPS Estrada, a native of Honduras who came to this country at age 16 and graduated from Harvard Law School, has been deemed too conservative by some Hispanic political groups. Some have compared his nomination to that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose views didn’t mesh with those of some civil rights groups. The Estrada nomination caused controversy within the HNBA. Although the organization endorsed Estrada’s nomination last Oct. 16, former HNBA presidents later signed a letter asking the organization to reconsider its support, according to the Legal Times, a sister publication of the Daily Report. Gomez, 33, is a member of Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, specializing in civil litigation, chiefly products liability, commercial disputes and personal injury defense. He earned his J.D. in 1994 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gomez began his term as president of the HNBA in 2001. The HNBA endorsed Estrada’s nomination, Gomez said, based on standards similar to those the American Bar Association applies when evaluating candidates for the federal bench: training, education and judicial temperament. However, Gomez added, the HNBA also considers a nominee’s receptivity to “issues and concerns that are important to the Hispanic community.” A nominee’s ethnicity is not the determining factor in winning the bar’s endorsement, Gomez said, nor is a nominee’s politics. “Whether a person’s ideology is in line with our ideology — to the extent that we have an ideology — is not really a determining factor,” he said. Estrada’s nomination is a particularly interesting one, because some court watchers have handicapped him as a possible nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. The HNBA has encouraged the appointment of a Hispanic to the high court for nearly 30 years, Gomez said. And it’s not necessarily ethnicity that has hindered the effort, Gomez said. It’s the politics that always accompanies all appointments to the federal bench. “We have to pick people who are centrists, people we can build a consensus around,” he said. Gomez added that the HNBA also is dedicated to ensuring a much larger pool of potential Hispanic nominees by increasing the number of Hispanics who graduate from law school. The lack of Hispanic role models in law, he said, contributes to the problem. A CORE CONCERN Increasing the Hispanic presence in the legal profession is one of the core concerns the membership of the HNBA addresses every year, Gomez said. Though the term “Hispanic” describes people from scores of countries and backgrounds, issues such as English-only legislation, discrimination against Hispanics, and immigration interest members from all backgrounds, Gomez said. “The Hispanic community itself is very diverse,” he said. “But even though we come from many different countries and many different cultures, there is a sense of the Hispanic-American experience that all members share.” According to the HNBA Web site, “Legal education and civil rights have been fundamental concerns of the HNBA since the beginning.” However, Gomez said that the bar generally concentrates its political efforts on deflecting legislation detrimental to Hispanics, rather than pursuing new laws to benefit them. “We hardly push any legislative agenda,” he said. “We’re a bar association, not a civil rights association. To push a political agenda, that’s not our job.” The 30th anniversary conference was designed to be a mix of heady policy addresses from “people with political muscle,” opportunities to network with other Hispanic lawyers, and time to blow off steam. “We study hard all day; we network hard all evening; we party hard all night,” he said. “And then the next morning we get up and do it all again.” “We’re like the ABA on Bacardi,” Gomez said.

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