to Making the Case
Reynaldo G. Garza (1915–2004)
Reynaldo G. Garza, who served as a judge on a federal district court
and on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, knew as a child that he
wanted to be a lawyer.
Garza once told an interviewer that when he was 8 or 9 years old, he
heard the gospel about a woman who was being stoned. “Christ said,
‘He who is without sin throw the first stone,’ and
everybody left,” Garza said. “The thought struck me that
was a very good defense he had. I went home and I told my mother and
daddy that I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Born July 7, 1915, in Brownsville, Garza was the sixth child of
Mexican immigrants. His parents had moved from Matamoros, Mexico, to
Brownsville, where Garza’s father worked in a bank. Neither parent
became an American citizen, because doing so would have resulted in the
loss of their property in Mexico. In 1961, their son Reynaldo made
headlines when President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the U.S.
District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
The news media hailed Garza as the first Mexican-American to serve as
a federal judge, but he might have been the second one. In 1947,
President Harry Truman appointed Harold Medina to the U.S. District
Court of the Southern District of New York and later appointed Medina
to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in 1951.
Medina’s mother was of Dutch ancestry, and his father was from
Yucatan, Mexico. In an interview, Garza recalled that Medina called him
about the news reports that Garza was the first Mexican-American
appointed to a federal bench. Medina’s comment, according to
Garza, was, “I guess they mean you are the first full-blooded
Regardless of whether Garza was the first or second Mexican-American
to sit on a federal bench, it was his appointment that paved the way
for others. As of April 15, 2011, there have been 98 Hispanics —
including Garza — who have served as federal judges, according to the
Federal Judicial Center’s website.
Alliances that Garza formed while attending the University of Texas
and University of Texas School of Law propelled him into politics and
eventually led to judicial appointments. In 1937, Garza met 28-year-old
Lyndon B. Johnson, who was running in a special election for a seat in
the U.S. House of Representatives. Garza promoted Johnson’s
candidacy for the House post in the Mexican-American community and
later campaigned for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960.
After graduating from law school in 1939, Garza returned to
Brownsville to begin his legal career. Garza struck a deal with the
Mexican consul stationed in Brownsville to serve as the
consulate’s attorney in return for free office space.
Representing the consulate helped Garza to build his law practice.
Garza twice won political offices during the 1940s. In 1941, he was
elected to the Brownsville Independent School District board, becoming
one of the few Mexican-Americans to hold leadership positions in that
border city. He won election to the Brownsville City Commission in 1947
after serving as a gunner sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War
II. His service on the city commission marked the last time Garza held
Garza’s legal practice flourished in Brownsville following the
war. A highlight of this time was Garza’s representation of the
families of young illegal immigrants killed when the pickup in which
they were passengers was struck by a train at an unmarked crossing.
Garza and the law firm of Faulk, Sharpe & Cunningham, which
represented some of the families, sued the railroad and its trustee,
Guy Thompson. The defendants lost the suit and Thompson subsequently
hired Garza and the Faulk, Sharpe firm to represent the railroad in
future cases. Garza joined the firm as a partner in January 1950.
The death of U.S. District Judge James V. Allred in 1959 created an
opening in the federal court system. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, and
others urged President Kennedy to nominate Garza for the job, despite
U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough’s initial reluctance to support the
nomination. Taking the judicial post proved costly for Garza, who noted
in an interview that he was making more than $100,000 a year when he
was offered the appointment for a job that paid only $22,500
Over the years, Garza presided over many important cases, including
the 1972 case Medrano v. Allee, in which he struck down laws
the Texas Rangers used to break up United Farm Workers strikes. In
1974, Garza presided over an unusual forum-shopping case, Turner v.
American Bar Association. A tax evasion group had sued the ABA and
every federal judge in the country — except Garza — alleging conspiracy
by the federal judiciary. The plaintiffs sought the right to be
represented by an unlicensed attorney, but Garza ruled against them.
In 1974, Garza became chief judge in the Southern District of Texas,
and in 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Garza to the 5th Circuit
Court of Appeals, making him the first Mexican-American to serve on
Garza died in 2004 at the age of 89. Elementary schools in Brownsville
and McAllen bear Garza’s name, and he is considered a role model
for young Hispanics.