Speaking at an American Bar Foundation event, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Bertila Soto described a Florida judges’ meeting with a starkly different view of Latino culture than her own.
She was at her first state judges’ conference after being elevated to the circuit bench in 2002 and overheard one judge telling another about owning a 500-acre farm.
The other judge asked how that was possible, and the gentleman farmer replied, “I own a bunch of Mexicans.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing that,” Soto recalled Friday. Her Cuban-American upbringing focused on the importance of education and seizing opportunities — “what we talked about 24/7.”
Her observations fed into a discussion about “The Future of Latinos in the United States: Law, Opportunity and Mobility.” The foundation project already has been presented at Northwestern University and will head to Stanford University and Yale University.
Much of the session focused on how different South Florida is from other Latino cultures in the country with the minority community, led by Cuban exiles in the 1960s, growing to become the political and business elite in Miami. The metropolitan area is 68 percent Hispanic compared with the declining Anglo population of 14 percent by 2016 census figures.
“We’re very fortunate in Miami-Dade County because people look like us,” said Soto, who is both the first Latino and first female chief circuit judge in Miami. “But step out of Miami-Dade County, and that’s not necessarily going to be true.”
She said she’s been mentored personally and professionally by people who “told me I can be anything I want in this country, and I believe that.”
Former American Bar Association president Stephen Zack with Boies Schiller Flexner in Miami noted his mother was Cuban, and he remembered appearing in court with another Cuban-American attorney when Miami was a sleepy, bigoted Southern town where accents weren’t tolerated. Zack speaks without an accent, but the judge told his companion, “Come back when you can speak English.”
In terms of trying to ease the way for foreign lawyers to get U.S. law licenses, Zack said Florida had a special program decades ago allowing Cuban exile lawyers to get law licenses in the state, and he asked why something like that doesn’t exist for the Venezuelan and Colombian lawyers arriving now.
Patricia White, dean of the University of Miami School of Law, offered two reasons: law schools are now regulated by the ABA, and master’s in law, or LL.M., programs have expanded to make U.S. licensing easier.
Enrollment in LL.M. programs does not require applicants to take the LSAT test but can deliver a degree in 1.5 years, she said. Students without English fluency typically score lower on the law school admission test.
About 150 foreign-trained lawyers, many of them Latin American, are enrolled in UM’s LL.M. program, and a law degree can be obtained quickly after that. She also noted the school offers a program with a first semester of intensive English and legal research as an introduction to U.S. law.
White came to Miami from Arizona State University. She describer her former state as a place where Latino students are largely at the bottom of the economic spectrum, where Spanish speakers are openly discriminated against and where first-generation Latinos with university or post-graduate degrees are “deeply unusual.” She said it was “a relief to come to a place where bilingualism is celebrated.”
The event was hosted by Miami Dade College. In a welcoming speech, its president, Eduardo Padron, said the school is “a place where Hispanics especially have found that open door to opportunity.”