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Law profs reflect on landmark

Dean of the University of Houston Law School Michael Olivas and University of Chicago Law School Professor Tracey Meares commemorated the 52nd anniversary of the Hernandez v. Texas Supreme Court case in a lecture on Tuesday night.

“The case didn’t have the organizational traction or the legs that sexier cases have,” said Olivas, adding that the significance of the 1954 case has often been overlooked. “It was simply seen as another bar-room brawl in Texas.”

The case revolved around the 1951 indictment of Pedro Hernandez, an agricultural worker, for the murder of Joe Espinosa in Edna, Texas. Hernandez was denied bail and convicted by an all-white jury. In an appeal that eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1954, Hernandez’s lawyers argued that their client was denied a fair trial because all the members of the jury were white, claiming also that Mexican-Americans were barred from the jury selection process.

In its unanimous ruling for Hernandez, the Supreme Court overturned his previous conviction and established the equal protection of Mexican-Americans under the 14th Amendment.

“The sociology of this town was Deep South, Jim Crow Texas…at the time no Mexican-American had argued a case in front of the Supreme Court,” Olivas said. “These people [the defense lawyers] were trying to set precedence in a very hostile environment.”

According to Olivas, Hernandez v. Texas has been largely overshadowed by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which was decided the same year. While Brown dealt with the principle of equal rights and the education of children, Hernandez “was seen as just another murder case,” Olivas said.

“What was going on in Hernandez was subtle,” Meares said. “Brown was about little kids who ought to get to go to school together, and Hernandez was seen as defending the rights of the murderer…but Hernandez v. Texas was about the right of particular groups of people to participate in the production of criminal justice.”

The talk, entitled “52 Years After Hernandez v. Texas,” was sponsored by the Katz Center for Mexican Studies.

Alejandro Flores, third-year in the College and coordinator of the event, said the case has significant implications for the country even half a century later.

“Today’s immigration debate demands the recognition of an important group,” Flores said. “Mexicans in the United States continue to influence the country. It is necessary that Hernandez be remembered in the history pages.”