With the help of a Ford Foundation seed grant, LatinoJustice PRLDF (LJ) was established in 1972 by three young attorneys—Jorge Batista, Victor Marrero and Cesar Perales. Initially named the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the organization adopted its current name in 2007.
By LJ’s telling, its creation came about because Puerto Ricans in the early ’70s “had no voice” in public life and “were simply invisible.” From its inception, the group’s stated mission was to protect the “civil and human rights” of Puerto Ricans and members of the greater Latino community, and to “ensure that they have more opportunities for political, economic, social and educational equality.” Among the noteworthy leaders on LJ’s founding board of directors were Jose Cabranes (who was later appointed as a federal appellate judge); John Carro (a New York State appellate judge); Robert Abrams (later elected as New York State Attorney General); Robert Mogenthau (New York County District Attorney); Herman Badillo (the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress); Geraldo Rivera (media personality); Nicholas Katzenbach (former U.S. Attorney General); William vanden Heuvel (later appointed U.S. Ambassador); and Jacob Javits (a U.S. Senator).
From its earliest days, LJ’s modus operandi has been to use advocacy and litigation—in the form of class action lawsuits designed to encompass large numbers of plaintiffs—to promote “precedent-setting impact cases across the country and trai[n] young people to be leaders in their community.”
The promotion of Spanish as an acceptable alternative to English in the business world has been a central LJ issue throughout the organization’s history. Indeed, its very first lawsuit, the 1974 Aspira v. New York City Board of Education case, resulted in a groundbreaking consent decree compelling New York to expand its bilingual education programs and increase the number of Spanish-speaking teachers in its employ. School districts in other cities soon implemented comparable bilingual programs, and to this day supporters of bilingual education invoke the Aspira ruling.
Another LJ court victory in the early 1970s (López v. Dinkins) led to the provision of bilingual ballots and interpreters—in English, Spanish, and Chinese—for parents voting in New York City school-board elections. The same legal arguments were subsequently used in the landmark voting-rights case, Torres v. Sachs, which required that bilingual ballots be made available for all New York City elections. By 1975, this mandate had spread across the entire country.
Also in the 1970s, LJ engaged in a great deal of employment litigation, particularly with respect to public-sector and civil-service employment opportunities. Two noteworthy cases, instance, outlawed height requirements that “unnecessarily disqualified Latino applicants” in the New York City Sanitation and Fire Departments. LJ also challenged “discriminatory entrance and promotional exams” administered by the New York Police Department.
By 1977, when LJ won a favorable settlement in the high-profile Vázquez v. Ferré case (protecting the rights of Puerto Rican migrant farmworkers in New Jersey), the organization had established itself as the leading legal advocacy group for Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States.
LJ also litigated in support of access to government benefits for “Spanish-dominant, poor households.” In Sanchez v. Maher (1977), for example, the Connecticut State Welfare Department was forced to hire bilingual personnel and provide Spanish-language application forms and notices. LJ also sued New Jersey and New York for their practice of terminating unemployment-insurance benefits to Puerto Ricans who had left the U.S. and returned to their homeland.
In the 1970s as well, LJ created its Legal Education Division “to increase the numbers of Puerto Ricans who attend and succeed at law school through training, counseling and preparatory programs.”
In 1980, Sonia Sotomayor, a young prosecutor in Manhattan who had recently graduated from Yale Law School, joined LJ’s board of directors. Handpicked by Jose Cabranes, a Puerto Rican attorney who had mentored her at Yale, Sotomayor served on this board for 12 years before becoming a federal judge in 1992. As an LJ board member, she promoted the organization’s core belief that Puerto Ricans—despite their exemption from federal income taxes (even while receiving billions of dollars in federal assistance) and their effective dual citizenship—were an oppressed minority in the United States, requiring the intervention of a group like LJ to safeguard their rights in a system stacked against them. As Sotomayor put it, LJ’s mission was to protect the “civil and human rights of disadvantaged Hispanics.” She would later be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama in 2009.
When New York City mayor Ed Koch in 1980 criticized a Supreme Court decision that upheld racial quotas, LJ signed a statement characterizing Koch’s remarks as “ill-informed, rhetorically excessive and unnecessarily divisive.”
In 1981, LJ supported a lawsuit (Luevano v. Campbell) that ultimately caused the federal government to phase out its use of the Professional and Administrative Career Examination for federal entry-level civil service jobs, on grounds that it allegedly discriminated against blacks and Latinos.
Also in 1981, LJ applauded a federal court ruling that forced teachers at an Ann Arbor, Michigan elementary school to undergo “consciousness raising”—at a cost of $44,000 in taxpayer funds—designed to make them more accepting of a so-called “Black English” dialect spoken by young African American children. The civil rights attorney who handled the case worked for LJ. His intent, he explained, was to make this lawsuit the “basis of [similar] suits against schools in Chicago and New York, and to extend the suit to embrace not only poor blacks but poor Puerto Rican students,” who supposedly spoke a dialect known as “Spanglish.”
The year 1981 also saw LJ throw its support behind efforts to maximize the number of congressional districts wherein Latinos constituted a numerical majority or plurality, which would enable them to essentially hand-pick their representatives as an ethnic bloc. For example, LJ joined forces with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to represent Puerto Rican and Mexican voters in Chicago who wished to challenge the redistricting of state legislative districts. A settlement resulted in the establishment of two new majority-Latino districts, thereby creating what LJ characterized as “a fair opportunity for Latinos to elect candidates of their choice.”
That same year, LJ opposed plans to redraw voting districts in Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. More recently, LJ has joined forces with attorneys to successfully defend “a progressive New York law that would count prisoners as residents of their home districts, not their prison towns, for redistricting purposes.”
When Senator S.I. Hayakawa in 1981 introduced a bill declaring English to be the sole official language of the United States, LJ responded with a flurry of oppositional advocacy, publications, journal articles, media appearances, and litigation—particularly in New York and New Jersey.
In 1982, LJ held its first “Legal Careers Day” (now called “Law Day”), to encourage Latino students to become attorneys and judges. Also in the 1980s, LJ’s education division developed a pilot mentorship program to pair law students with recent law-school graduates for individual support and assistance.
In 1983, LJ filed a complaint against Elizabeth, New Jersey mayor Thomas Dunn following a City Hall directive requiring staffers there to speak English while on the job.
Also in 1983, LJ filed a federal lawsuit challenging a “discriminatory, vague and arbitrary” Office of Personal Management policy that barred any organization from receiving “undesignated” Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) funds until it had compiled at least a five-year track record of receiving funds specifically “designated” to that group. LJ lost the case.
LJ also handled a lawsuit for two individuals who claimed that in 1983 they had been fired from their Victims Services Agency jobs for racially motivated reasons. Ultimately, Judge Henry F. Werker ruled that LJ and its clients had “failed to show sufficiently serious questions” to support their case.
In 1984 LJ sued the New York City Police Department, charging that its promotion exams discriminated against Latinos and African-Americans. The case was settled when the Department agreed to promote an additional 100 black officers and 60 Latino officers to the rank of sergeant.
Another LJ lawsuit alleged that in a June 1985 runoff election in Jersey City, New Jersey, an incumbent mayor had violated the Voting Rights Act by deliberately engaging in a “slow-down-the-vote” strategy targeting prospective black and Puerto Rican voters. Hundreds of local voters from those two demographics were eventually paid monetary damages for “the interference with their right to cast a ballot.”
In 1986, LJ attorneys argued (and won) their first case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Known as Attorney General of NY v. Soto Lopez, the case challenged New York State laws that awarded veteran civil-service exam credits only to veterans who enlisted from New York—while denying credits to those who enlisted from Puerto Rico. The ruling also awarded Puerto Rican veterans additional points on their civil-service promotion exams.
In 1988, LJ again challenged the New York City Police Department’s allegedly “racist” promotion exam, which blacks and Hispanics were failing in disproportionate numbers as compared to whites. One provision of the settlement authorized LJ to preside over a radical redesign of the exam—a measure whose purpose was to allow more minorities to achieve passing grades. According to The New York Times: “The new test, a four-part exam prepared with the help of an expert designated by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund and two Justice Department officials, involved changes in format, including the addition of open-book questions and a video portion.”
Also in the 1980s, LJ filed a number of lawsuits in New Jersey to make it more difficult to fire or lay off bilingual-education teachers.
In 1990, LJ condemned then-New York City mayor David Dinkins for characterizing as “assassins” three members of the Marxist Puerto Rican terror group FALN who in 1954 had shot and wounded five members of the U.S. Congress. LJ said the mayor’s comments “lacked sensitivity,” and LJ president Reuben Franco stated that Dinkins “doesn’t recognize that to many people in Puerto Rico, these are fighters for freedom and justice, for liberation, just as is Nelson Mandela, who himself advocated bearing arms.”
Also in 1990, LJ opposed a bill under consideration by the New York City Council that “would have required retailers to post at their storefronts English-language signs explaining the nature of their businesses.”
In 1991, LJ sued a consortium of New York City nonprofit groups that had been trying to revitalize some of the city’s worst slums by developing middle-class housing projects therein. By LJ’s reckoning, however, the city and state subsidies that helped fund the project should instead have been used to develop low-income housing.
In the 1996 case of Sheff v. O’Neill, LJ attorneys were part of a legal team that persuaded the Connecticut Supreme Court to rule that because “the Hartford school system was racially isolated,” minority children in that city’s schools were being “deprived of educational opportunities compared to white students in Hartford’s suburbs.” The court ordered the state to engage in remedial efforts.
In 1998, LJ and the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy collaborated to create a new entity, the PRLDEF Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, designed to foster an interdisciplinary approach to advocacy. This strategic alliance lasted seven years and produced a number of critical reports, most notably one about “the inequitable state of Latino judicial appointments and elections in New York.”
Throughout the 1990s, LJ developed numerous special programs focused on the areas of “Latina Rights, Poverty and Economic Justice, and Voting Rights.” The organization was particularly concerned that “the Latino community faced threats to affirmative action, a dismantling of government entitlement programs, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment.” Citing a disproportionate impact on Latina women, for example, LJ challenged New Jersey policies restricting access to public welfare benefits for women who became pregnant while receiving such benefits.
Also in the ’90s, LJ expanded its docket to include litigation in the field of “environmental equity,” fighting to “ensure the right of minority residents to access green recreational spaces.” In LJ’s view, sources of pollution such as landfills, industrial plants, and truck depots tended to be located disproportionately in poor and nonwhite communities.
Another hallmark of LJ’s work in the ’90s was its advocacy on behalf of “the rights of undocumented immigrants” in such cases as:
In 2000, LJ and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—co-director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the Pace University School of Law—sued the U.S. Navy on behalf of the residents of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. At issue was the Navy’s use of the island for purposes of ammunition storage and military training exercises that, according to LJ, violated numerous environmental and civil-rights laws. The suit demanded that the Navy clean up the degraded environment of the island, return the land to the local government, and financially compensate the local population for damages incurred.
In 2001, LJ litigators won a settlement wherein the New York City Housing Authority agreed to give priority admission to nonwhite families in the public housing developments of Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and Manhattan’s Lower East Side—to atone for alleged past discrimination.
That same year, when tuition rates for illegal-immigrant students (whom LJ calls “undocumented students”) at the City University of New York increased dramatically, LJ brought a lawsuit that successfully challenged those higher costs, thus making illegal immigrants graduating from New York State high schools eligible for the same discounted college tuition rates that were available to in-state legal residents.
In August 2006, LJ filed a complaint (Lozano v. Hazleton) challenging the city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s “Illegal Immigration Relief Act,” an ordinance that barred landlords, business owners, and other entities from renting to, or providing goods and services to, “illegal aliens.” The ordinance also imposed an English-only policy for city-government service agencies. In July 2007, a federal court granted LJ permanent injunctive relief, which enjoined Hazleton from implementing any of the challenged ordinances.
A prime objective of LJ is to help develop Latino attorneys who—by forming alliances with civil rights organizations, civil liberties groups, and government agencies—can influence public opinion and keep alive LJ’s tradition of crafting legislation to advance the rights of illegal aliens. Toward this end, in June 2005 LJ launched LAWbound, a pipeline program for Latino college students “who are interested in pursuing careers in the legal profession but may not have the resources and proper information to apply successfully.”
If a Latino attorney fails to share LJ’s leftwing ideological orientation, however, the organization invariably eschews that individual. For example, LJ passionately opposed President George W. Bush’s 2003 nomination of conservative Republican Miguel Estrada, a Honduran-born immigrant, to the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia.
In 2008, LJ formed a Youth Civic Engagement Network to help young leaders “take part in the fight for civil rights,” become “agent[s] for social change,” and “help connect people to information they need to be active in social justice.”
A member of the Hispanic Federation, LJ receives financial support from such entities as the Allstate Foundation, the AT&T Foundation, the Boston Foundation, the Bristol-Meyers Squibb Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the New York Times Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Scherman Foundation, the UPS Foundation, the Verizon Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It is also supported by dozens of major corporations.
LJ’s current chairman is Gabriel Guerra-Mondragon, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Chile during the Bill Clinton administration.