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Carlos Cadena

CARLOS C. CADENA (1917–2001)

Carlos C. Cadena helped end the exclusion of persons of Mexican descent from juries and the segregation of Mexican-American children in Texas’ public schools. Cadena, the son of Mexican immigrants, also became the first Hispanic to serve as a chief justice in Texas, after his appointment to that position of the Texas 4th Court of Appeals in 1977.

While a young lawyer in San Antonio, Cadena joined Gus Garcia and other attorneys in appealing the conviction of Pete Hernandez, a migrant cotton picker sentenced to life in prison for the 1950 murder of Joe Espinosa in Edna, a small town in Jackson County, southeast of San Antonio. Prior to the trial, Hernandez moved to quash the indictment and the jury panel, alleging that persons of Mexican descent were systematically excluded from Jackson County juries. The trial court denied the motions, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the judgment.

The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently reversed Hernandez’s conviction. In January 1954, the high court heard arguments in Hernandez v. Texas. The state contended that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution did not protect Mexican-Americans, who were in the same class as whites. But evidence showed that persons of Mexican descent were not treated the same as whites in Jackson County. For example, of the two men’s toilets on the courthouse grounds at the time, one was unmarked and the other was marked “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aqui.” The unanimous Supreme Court held that persons could not be excluded from jury duty because of their national origin. On retrial, however, Hernandez was convicted again and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Hernandez was not the first major civil rights case in which Cadena was involved. He also was an attorney on Delgado v. Gracy, which resulted in a precedent-setting agreed judgment in 1948. Before the Supreme Court ruled in 1950’s Sweatt v. Painter and 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Delgado case successfully challenged Texas’ practice of segregating Mexican-American schoolchildren and treating them as a separate class.

Cadena, who grew up in San Antonio, received his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1940. He worked as an assistant city attorney in San Antonio before World War II interrupted his legal career. From 1942 to 1946, he was in the U.S. Army Air Force, serving as a radio operator on a B-24 bomber in the Pacific.

Following his discharge from the military, Cadena briefly practiced law with the firm of Goodrich & Dalton in Mexico City before returning to San Antonio to work in the city attorney’s office. Cadena served seven years as the city attorney, resigning in 1961.

Also during this period, Cadena began his association with St. Mary’s University School of Law. He taught at St. Mary’s prior to working for the City of San Antonio and returned to teaching at the law school after his resignation.

Cadena’s 25 years of service on the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio began in 1965, when Governor John Connally appointed him to fill Jack Pope’s unexpired term on the court. Pope left the court of appeals to sit on the Texas Supreme Court. In 1977, Governor Dolph Briscoe appointed Cadena as the 4th Court’s chief justice. Cadena continued his judicial service after becoming a senior justice in 1990.

Cadena often disagreed with other justices on the 4th Court. In a 1999 interview, Cadena noted that he wrote 88 dissenting opinions while on the court of appeals. In one dissent, Cadena disagreed with the 4th Court majority’s holding that the father of an illegitimate child had no duty to support the child. As Cadena recalled in the interview, he wrote in the dissenting opinion that to stop having illegitimate children, the best thing to do was to tell the man, “You be careful now; if you are not, you are going to have to pay.”

Cadena died in 2001 at the age of 83.

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