Latinos and American Law: Landmark Supreme Court Cases

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Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)

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Google Scholar. Cite Citation. Latinos and American Law analyzes issues of particular significance to Latinos as well as cases involving legal issues that are important to the American legal system generally and where Latinos were key participants. Latinos and American Law tries to promote understanding and to further the great ideals of the United States legal system: liberty, equality, and a government of laws and rules.

Latinos and American Law is generally organized chronologically and divided according to the Supreme Court's various historical eras by reference to the Chief Justice at the time e. The introduction provides a historical backdrop for understanding the general role of Latinos in the American society and legal system.

Each chapter focuses on one landmark Supreme Court case of significance to Latinos in the American legal system, beginning with a discussion of background factors, including relevant general legal issues. Then, each chapter walks through the opinion, or opinions, since in many of these cases the Court was divided and some justices wrote opinions separate from the Court's official opinion, either agreeing or disagreeing with the Court's ruling. The chapters then conclude with a brief analysis of the opinion's significance and post-decision events of note.

While many cases involve constitutional issues, others do not. This distinction is significant because the Court is the final arbiter on constitutional issues, but not of non-constitutional laws, which a subsequent Congress may choose to amend if Congress disagrees with a ruling from the Court on statutory issues. A ruling from the Court on constitutional issues generally can only be challenged either 1 by a subsequent case before the Supreme Court seeking to overrule or modify that decision, or 2 by constitutional amendment.

The legal issues and each chapter of the book describe legal situations as diverse as the groups comprising Latinos, including ethnic, geographic, and other differences. The Court's rulings reflect the times, including the politics of the times. Frequently, the Court's rulings were pro-government. Of the cases in this book, the only "pro-government" ruling that involved legislation made for the benefit of Latinos is Katzenbach v. Morgan , a case whose ruling has been subject to extensive criticism. Also noteworthy is the gap between the Court's rhetoric and the results of its holdings.

History | MALDEF

Several cases highlight how narrow and formal construction of anti-discrimination laws can render them virtually meaningless in protecting relatively politically powerless groups. Botiller v. Dominguez reflects the role of the Court as part of a conquering government in the Southwest after the U. Balzac v. Porto [sic] Rico reflects the Court's role as co-governing colonial institution over Puerto Rico.

Some of the opinions in Latinos and American Law reflect that the Court, at times, applies laws and constitutional protections differently depending on the places specifically the U. Hernandez v. Many have questioned whether these terms make any sense at all.

Until the United States government and the governments of subdivisions of the United States began using these terms, no one had been born a "Hispanic" or a "Latino," and the terms lack the precision of being born a woman or a man or even, to a lesser extent, black or white. Earl Shorris writes, "there are no Latinos, only diverse peoples struggling to remain who they are while becoming someone else.

Linda Chavez makes the point with a slightly different perspective: "Before the affirmative action age, there were no Hispanics , only Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and so on. For some, English is the only language. In light of all of the differences across subgroups of Latinos, one might wonder if we should even use these characterizations. From a legal perspective, however, such terms have come to have some import. Justice William Douglas provided a persuasive rationale in a dissenting opinion when the United States Supreme Court refused to accept certiorari the writ most commonly used by people who seek to have the Supreme Court accept the discretionary review of their case from a lower court in a class action suit brought on behalf of "Indo-Hispano" children seeking publicly funded bilingual education in New Mexico's public schools, Tijerina v.

Henry In Tijerin a, the federal district court refused to recognize the putative or proposed class because its membership was too vague. According to Justice Douglas, "One thing is not vague or uncertain, however, and that is that those who discriminate against members of this and other minority groups have little difficulty in isolating the objects of their discrimination.

The Supreme Court Matters for Communities of Color

In the context of the American legal system, the Supreme Court in Hernandez v. The flip side of classifying people is defining those not in the classified group. The two most important groups in relation to Hispanics are white Americans and black Americans because the United States as a society has viewed itself predominantly as bi-racial black or white.

The legal system has reflected this bi-racial view of the United States, and Hispanics like Asian-Americans and others do not neatly fit in one category or the other. Also, white Americans are the "majority" in the United States and are most heavily represented in the power structure; traditionally, black Americans have been the largest "minority" group in the United States and were the leaders and focus of the Civil Rights movement of the s and s as well as anti-discrimination laws passed in the nineteenth century.

Of particular importance is the fact that Asian-Americans and Native Americans are found in great preponderance in the West and Southwest, much like Mexican-Americans.