El Paso County Attorney
José R. Rodríguez still gets excited when he talks about his job. He believes, as he did back in 1993 when he became El Paso County Attorney, that the office is a vehicle for change.
“This is one of the few positions where you can really help people turn their lives around,” he says, because the office has jurisdiction to be involved in matters involving juveniles, family violence, environmental enforcement and mental health code issues. “It’s been a very rewarding and challenging job.”
Indeed, Rodríguez has been on the forefront of change nearly his entire legal career. A 1974 graduate of the George Washington University Law Center, he was drawn to politics and public policy after spending his childhood criss-crossing the country every growing season with his migrant farmworker parents. “I wanted to become a lawyer and help my community, but I am a child of the ’60s and the Chicano Movimiento, so it was politicized,” Rodríguez recalls, noting that he twice met legendary activist César Chávez.
After graduating from law school and spending a few years with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he returned to Texas to work with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, directing the statewide farmworker program and eventually opening the El Paso office in 1983. In 1990, he became the legal adviser to a county judge and learned about the county attorney’s office, which he realized incorporated many of the same areas of law as legal services, but with the funding and the power that came with being a branch of the state of Texas. He ran for the position and won, taking office on Jan. 1, 1993.
He reorganized the office into separate units; the 37 lawyers in his office now focus on a particular area of law such as environmental, elder abuse or mental health. He also encourages lawyers on his staff to get involved in community service beyond their regular caseload. “I don’t think [the job] is just about prosecuting cases,” he says.
Some of Rodríguez’s early achievements include winning water, sewer and other infrastructure development for low-income unincorporated border communities known as colonias. He exposed inequities in state funding to bring more tax dollars to El Paso and other border communities and implemented a teen court, an environmental task force and environmental law court to take on issues such as illegal dumping.
He also is involved in legislative matters. Most recently, he urged passage of S.B. 1368, which allows certain counties to establish ethics commissions to create ethics codes “to hold anyone who has business with the county accountable for violating the ethical standards we establish,” he explains. The law, the first of its kind in Texas, was signed by Gov. Rick Perry on June 19 and takes effect in September.
“That one I predict will serve as a role model for the rest of the state of Texas. I think other jurisdictions will follow suit the next time around,” he says.
Outside the office, Rodríguez is involved in a myriad of social justice organizations. He is on the U.S.-Mexico Border & Immigration Task Force and helped found the Texas Border Coalition to address the needs of border areas, and he chairs the coalition’s health-care committee. He also helped to found the Chicano Bar Association of South Texas, the State Bar of Texas’ Hispanic Issues Section.
Notes Rodríguez, “People complain generally that there are too many lawyers,” he says. “But the reality is that in the Hispanic community and Latino community, we don’t have enough lawyers.”