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Thomas A. Saenz: A Brilliant Civil Rights Lawyer Honed by the Fight Against 187

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

In 1994, when Proposition 187 was on the ballot, Thomas A. Saenz was a Southern California-born young attorney, who had just been hired by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) after graduating summa cum laude from Yale University and having clerked for two federal judges.

Antonia Hernández, who was then the President and General Counsel of MALDEF, knew that Saenz could take any high-powered job he wanted in the legal profession, but she decided to offer him a job anyway. That was in 1993.

“He is one of the most brilliant lawyers I have ever met, and he could have taken any job. At that time, all I could offer him was 30,000 dollars,” she remembers today. “He said yes, and that was the beginning of the legal legend of Tom Saenz.”

For Saenz, looking back today on his career, it was a no-brainer. “It was really my dream when I went to law school — to work at MALDEF and pursue a career as a civil rights attorney working on behalf of the Latino community.”

Working on the campaign against Proposition 187 and the legal challenges that ended up stopping the anti-immigrant law was an important learning experience for Saenz. He did everything, from debating the proponents in public settings to helping devise, write and argue the lawsuits that ended up stopping the implementation of the initiative, which passed in November of 1994.

If ever there was a moment in California history that could test an attorney interested in defending the civil rights of Latinos, 1994 was it. It actually was just the beginning. Twenty-six years later, Saenz is the President and General Counsel of MALDEF, and he is still doing the work that he dreamed of doing as a young attorney.

One of the first surprises for Saenz, as he tells the story today, was that the 187 proponents he debated in countless events during that year were relying on a nativist conspiracy theory to push the initiative forward.

“The argument was that we needed to send a message from the state of California to the federal government in order to prevent Mexico and Mexican Americans from taking back the Southwest of the United States,” he remembers. “It really astounded me that such an obvious fallacious rumor would be a centerpiece for those who were arguing to vote yes on 187.”

This was not consistent with Saenz’s training about what public policymaking was about. Sadly, it's a political tactic that persists until today, and it's often successful, he added in a recent interview. 

As he argued against 187, Saenz was participating and collaborating among lawyers at different organizations and levels of experiences in strategy and preparation for the lawsuits that would be filed against the initiative. Because the law at the time in California mandated that initiatives would take effect the day after the election, the civil rights groups had to be ready to file and argue that same day.

And so they did. A coalition of groups that included the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, MALDEF and others ended up in front of federal Chief Judge Matthew Byrne, ready to argue the case against 187. The proposition had overwhelmingly won with 59% of the vote but lost 3 to 1 among Latinos and lost among African Americans and Asian Americans as well.

ACLU's Mark Rosenbaum, then an experienced lawyer, was ready to present the case against 187 based on preemption and federal supremacy, but the judge sent word that he was "intrigued" by procedural due process, another argument that young attorney Thomas A. Saenz had actually been tasked with writing.

“I was nervous because I had not prepared for the argument, but when Rosenbaum turned and asked me if I would do it, my boss Antonia Hernández was sitting next to me, so I really had no choice but to say yes to doing it in front of all those legal luminaries,” Saenz recalls. "Fortunately, I didn't stumble too much, and it happened quickly, but today I view that as one of the greatest opportunities of my career.”

Judge Byrne granted an injunction that stopped most of 187 from taking effect, and Saenz remembers it as a moment of "relief and calm" for the community because "prior to that, there were rampant fears" in the community.  Proposition 187 effectively ended in 1999 when the new governor Gray Davis reached a settlement with the plaintiffs through a mediation process.

In 1996, Saenz became Los Angeles Regional Counsel of MALDEF, in 2000, National Senior Counsel and Vice-President of Litigation in 2001. He taught Civil Rights Litigation as an adjunct professor at USC for several years, and in August of 2005, he became counsel to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Saenz came back to MALDEF in 2009 as President and General Counsel, the position that Hernández originally held when she hired the then young and brilliant attorney.

He is still in that position, where he continues to lead the charge on Latino civil rights in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights, voting rights and access to justice.

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