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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

José Padilla: Ethnic poor 'have been given a half plate of their due'

Addressing the New York Legal Aid Society in 1951, the Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand said, "If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice."

Fifty years later ­ and more than 35 years after President Lyndon Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty" ­ the rationing of justice is alive and well in rural California, said José Padilla, executive director of the San Francisco-based California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. (CRLA), which has offices up and down the state.

"The ethnic poor ­ Latino poor among them ­ have been given a half plate of their due. They've been given a rationed portion of that equal-justice promise," Padilla said. "And although the goal was always to provide the poor full and equal access to the courts, it has been an evolving race to the bottom rung."

Padilla delivered the 16th Annual Ernesto Galarza Commemorative Lecture to a full house Friday at the Schwab Residential Center; those who couldn't find seats stood along the back wall.

Born in a small rural community in Imperial County, Padilla earned a bachelor's degree from Stanford in 1974. He received his law degree in 1978 from the University of California-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. He has spent his entire legal career representing the poor in the state's rural communities.

He said statistics show that Americans enjoy an unprecedented access to legal assistance ­ unless those Americans are poor.

According to a National Legal Aid and Defender Association report from 1992, there is one attorney for every 305 Americans in the general population but only one attorney for every 40,965 rural farm workers in California, he said.

"The numbers are only the symptom," he said. "The cause has been the political de-funding of social service programs, including legal services, through two major national attacks: the national politics under the Reagan presidency in the early '80s, and the Gingrich 'Contract Against Americans' in the mid-1990s."

Funding cutbacks between 1980 and 2000 reduced the number of lawyers working for the CRLA from 75 to 35.

"As Latino rural poverty increases with the increasing Latino general population, legal-aid services must continue [to be] capable of bringing about these changes, addressing the new needs of the changing demography," Padilla said. "Whereas the white rural poor need basic legal aid, ethnic rural poor need both civil rights protection as well as representation in the traditional services legal aids provide."

The CRLA and other programs for the poor ­ especially those for farm workers in California, Texas and North Carolina ­ were "seemingly singled out for special political harassment, through more intense investigations," Padilla said.

It became clear, he said, that such federal reviews had nothing to do with assessing the quality of the CRLA's client services and everything to do with finding technical violations and "mismanagement," he said.

"Yet, they were moments when CRLA, as a program, felt the most united because we were focused on institutional survival ­ a survival, we used to say, 'to let us serve the poor just one more day,'" he said.

Later in the lecture, Padilla ticked off a list of CRLA achievements. For example, in 1973, the group stopped the practice of placing non-English-speaking children in classes for mentally retarded students; in 1975, it succeeded in banning the use of the short-handled hoe in agriculture ­ reducing back injuries among farm workers; in 1997, CRLA stopped the "driverless tractor" practices that have killed workers.

Padilla said he is proud to say that he is a poverty and legal-aid lawyer.

"I work with dedicated advocates ­ men and women ­ who say, when we win, 'Damn, we're good,'" he said.

The annual Galarza Commemorative Lecture was started by Renato Rosaldo, a professor of cultural and social anthropology, when he was director of the Center for Chicano Research.

"I wanted to make known the kinds of things research can do and activism can do," Rosaldo said. The lecture is named after the Mexican-born scholar, economist, activist and educator who earned a master's degree at Stanford. Galarza's research focused on the business of agriculture and life of the agricultural worker. The lectures have ranged in subject from the academic to the advocatory.

Over the past 16 years, the public has become more knowledgeable about issues affecting Mexican American and other Latino communities, Rosaldo said.

"So when people come to the lecture, they probably know more about the issues than they would have before," he said. "Before, you'd have to count on someone's personal or family experience for them to connect, but I think now there's a lot more course work ­ people are majoring in CSRE [the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity program] and Chicano studies. There's more student attendance [at the lecture] than there has been in the past."


By John Sanford

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