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 Mexican.”
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 political office.
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 annually.
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 that court.
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.