Friday, Sept. 9, 2005

What a Hispanic justice would mean

I was still a law student when I decided that the Supreme Court needed a Hispanic justice. I was scouring cases, when I came to U.S. v. Brignoni-Ponce (1975). I read the decision twice, thinking I had misread it.

In Brignoni, the court held that "apparent Mexican ancestry" alone did not constitute legitimate grounds for the Border Patrol to conduct an immigration check. Even so, the court said, "the likelihood that any given person of Mexican ancestry is an alien is high enough to make Mexican appearance a relevant factor" in an immigration stop. In effect, the court declared a form of racial profiling constitutional.

A Hispanic justice would have provided a useful perspective to the Brignoni reasoning. So here we are, 30 years later, and the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice is a possibility. No, it won't be with President Bush's first opening. That went to chief justice nominee John Roberts. But Bush now has a second chance to make history. His attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, recently said, "There will be a Hispanic on the court - it's inevitable." I hope he's right.

As with African-Americans and women, Latinos deserve representation. Hispanics are the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group. Although ethnicity should not be a nominee's chief qualification, a Latino presence on the high court is overdue and would have monumental implications for the country.

Consider Thurgood Marshall's impact. A great-grandson of a slave, he came to the bench as a renowned civil rights attorney, bringing personal insight and expertise honed in cases such as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Throughout his tenure, he was sensitive to racial discrimination. "Bringing the Negro into the mainstream of American life should be a state interest of the highest order," Marshall wrote in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978.

Similarly, a Latino justice would open the eyes of justice a bit further. He would recognize that "Mexican appearance" is a flawed basis for an immigration check. He would see that English-only laws and the Real ID Act, which prohibits driver's licenses for illegal aliens, can be adversely applied to Hispanics.

The appointment of a Hispanic would be a breathtaking milestone. It's worth noting that the Supreme Court will face issues with broad effect on Latinos: bilingual education, affirmative action, immigration and workers' and voters' rights. It is imperative that the concerns of Latinos are represented. Just as Marshall served as the voice for African-Americans, a Hispanic justice could, and should, soon be ours.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney in New York and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors