I was privileged on Feb. 18 to attend a celebration of how our system works, particularly when good people use it for the right purpose. Sometimes it takes time and patience, but eventually we get it right. The celebration took place at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana, and featured Sylvia Mendez. When she was 8 years old, Sylvia, along with her brothers, Gonzalo and Jerome, was refused admission to an all-white public school here in Orange County.
Sylvia had been born in Santa Ana, and was living there with her family while they rented a farm from a Japanese-American family that had been sent to an internment camp during World War II. But when her aunt took the three children to the all-white school, she was told she could enroll her own children because they were light-skinned, but Sylvia and her brothers would not qualify because they were Mexican.
So Sylvia’s parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, joined forces with the Gomez, Palomino, Estrada and Ramirez families. They filed a lawsuit on March 2, 1945, in federal court in Los Angeles against their respective school districts to enjoin them from such discriminatory policies. This act showed fortitude and courage, but throughout this ordeal all of these families were assisted by many of their relatives and friends, and also by lots of lawyers (which is yet another reason why I am proud of our profession!).
On Feb. 18, 1946, Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and enjoined such segregationist practices in the public schools. He stated without equivocation that: “The equal protection of the laws pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, textbooks and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school associations regardless of lineage.”
The original idea for the event came when my colleague, Judge Rick Aguirre of our Superior Court, asked my good friend, Judge Andy Guilford of the federal court, if he would agree to make his courtroom available for a small celebration of the Mendez case on the 65th anniversary, exactly to the day, of Judge McCormick’s ruling. Of course, Judge Guilford enthusiastically agreed.
Those two judges were quickly joined by attorney Paul Greenwald and Sandra Robbie of Chapman University, and the four of them began to organize the festivities. But as soon as the word got out about what would be happening, the organizers were forced to move the event to the larger ceremonial courtroom to handle the people who had already responded to the invitation. Then, they also had to use Judge Guilford’s courtroom as well as an extra one for a video feed.
By the time the day of the event arrived, three Orange County courtrooms and the jury assembly room, plus additional federal courtrooms in both Los Angeles and Riverside, were all pressed into service to handle the crowds. But this heartfelt celebration of heroics and a steadfast belief in our system of laws and justice was worth all of the efforts. What a day!
Just three days earlier, on Feb. 15, President Obama awarded Sylvia Mendez the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in recognition of those families’ contributions to our country. On Feb. 18, she proudly wore that medal at our celebration. In addition, representatives of each of the other four families — one of whom was 99 years old — were also in attendance.
At this point, everyone that counts now agrees that Judge McCormick issued the right ruling. But we should all keep in mind that this was a full eight years before the United States Supreme Court’s much more famous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. Of course, that was the case that held that “separate but equal” schools for black students were a violation of the Equal Protections Clause of the 14th Amendment. And that case changed history.
But many legal scholars feel that Brown would never have been decided the way it was without Mendez leading the way. While the Mendez case was going through the court system, Earl Warren — who would go on to be the chief justice on the United States Supreme Court when Brown was decided — was still governor of California, and it is a virtual certainty that he followed the arguments while they were being presented to the courts in Mendez, as well as the eventual rulings.
In addition, while he was still a practicing attorney, Justice Thurgood Marshall represented the plaintiffs in Brown, and he used many of the successful legal arguments from the Mendez case when he argued the Brown case. And the final court rulings in each of those cases contain similar language.
In 2007, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating the final appellate court ruling in Mendez v. Westminster, and for good reason. This was a positive national historical event that took place here in Orange County, both because it marked the beginning of the end of racial segregation in our nation’s schools, and also because it marked yet another occasion in which good and steadfast people followed an important mantra of good citizenship, which is to “Make our System Work.”
Once again our system of justice was put to the test, and it lived up to the challenge — and that is something truly worth celebrating! In fact, it made us all proud!
Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)