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October 6, 2007

Honorable Federico Hernández Denton
Chief Justice

Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
2007 Hispanic National Bar Association Annual Convention

Good Evening.

      It is with deep gratitude that I accept the Latino Judge of the Year award and I am of course, honored to share it with my colleague Chief Judge, Judge José A. Fusté, of the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico. Our joint presence here tonight is a sign of the increasing awareness among Hispanic law professionals of the necessity of strengthening bonds and sharing resources for the advancement of our community at large.  The fact that the HNBA, which originated as a mainland-based organization, has chosen our island to host its convention, is proof that the needs and the vision of the U.S. Hispanic community has expanded beyond its geographical borders. 

After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, I returned to Puerto Rico where I have worked all my life. I have essentially dedicated my career to public service either in the government or in the academy in the island. However, I have always been conscious of the fact that the other half of our population lives in the mainland United States. At the dawn of the 21st century, Latinos have come to understand that strength comes from the solidarity between our different groups and that the welfare of one is inextricably linked to that of the others.  This holds true for the relationship between Puerto Ricans who live in the island and our Hispanic brothers and sisters in the mainland.

I am very sensitive to the fact that our Puerto Ricans in the US have been the victims of discrimination and poverty.  The fact that Latinos in the United States are underrepresented in all branches of the legal field: law students, law professors, prosecutors, attorneys and judges, is also of great concern to me. Statistics show the magnitude of the problem.  According to the US Census Bureau as of December 2006 the Latino population was 42.7 million. Census figures anticipate that by 2050 they will eventually outnumber Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Blacks combined. According to the American Bar Association about 9 percent of judges and 10 percent of lawyers are members of minority groups, compared with 1 in 4 American workers. For example, in California, roughly 17 percent of judges and lawyers are nonwhite, versus 58 percent of the state's population.

Of particular concern is the under-representation of minorities in both the federal and state courts. Judges, as the third branch of government, need to be representative of the communities they serve. If the judiciary loses the confidence of the public, its job will be difficult, if not impossible. Ethnic and gender diversity broadens the viewpoints on the bench and leads to a fairer and more credible judicial system. For people to believe in the justice system, to believe that it works it is necessary to have judges who are sensitive to the problems and their necessities.

The fact that Puerto Rico is an island does not insulate us from these realities. The constant immigration and emigration of Puerto Ricans who live between island and mainland, and our unique political position within the United States federal framework, present us with some of the same challenges of Hispanics in the U.S. and with others which are particular to our circumstances. Puerto Ricans, as American citizens, have the full protection of the US Constitution, but we also have our own Constitution, laws and judiciary. Our courts are staffed by Puerto Rican judges, our lawyers and prosecutors are Puerto Rican and all business in the courts is conducted in Spanish.

However, despite the fact that we are obviously a majority in our island, the same issue of equal representation of minority voices faced by Hispanics in the US has to be tackled here. The Judiciary must remain accessible to all segments of the society it serves, being especially mindful and protective of the access to disempowered sectors of our society. One of the crucial components in the quest for equal representation, is education.  Being that the legal profession plays a critical role in the policy making sector of our society, it is crucial to educate future and present legal professionals to be cognizant of the views, needs and demands of all segments of society.  Both at law school level, in continuing legal education seminars and in the public debate in which lawyers are protagonists, it is crucial to bring to the forefront those issues of interest to our Latino communities, such as immigration policy, legal barriers to education, voting rights, and disparate application of criminal laws to the poor.

Here in Puerto Rico, the Judiciary, spear-headed by the Supreme Court, is taking proactive steps in implementing projects that guarantee access to the communities in order to remain an active agent of social justice in our citizens’ daily lives.  Among these initiatives are the establishment of Domestic Violence Courts, Family and Juvenile Affairs Courts and “Drug Courts” where the innovative concept of therapeutic justice is being applied by integrating in one same process social services, judicial intervention and professional supervision of the parties involved. 
Apart from the bridges being built between the local Judiciary and communities, we are also aware of the need to open the channels of communication between the State and Federal Judiciary, a traditionally sensitive subject among state and federal spheres, which can be especially sensitive in the case of Puerto Rico given its political status as a Commonwealth.  With this goal in mind, the Federal District Court of Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth Supreme Court has established the Committee for Improvement of State and Federal Judiciary Relations, on December, 2006.  This is a long awaited project which sets precedent in our judiciary history. The joint effort promises to open avenues of communication between both branches and by promoting the discussion of matters of mutual interest to both, such as removal jurisdiction, bankruptcy stays, venue matters, comity and abstention issues. 

Before concluding today I want to recognize the extremely important achievement of tonight’s Special Achievement Award Honoree, Mr. Andrew Crespo as the President of Harvard Law Review. We are all extremely proud of this extraordinary accomplishment of a very talented Puerto Rican student, who is exemplary of all the Latinos and Latinas who live in the US and contribute to its culture, its economy, its music, its politics and its development. Let me finally reiterate how very pleased we are to have hosted the HNBA Annual Convention in Puerto Rico and hope that you have all enjoyed and continue to enjoy the rest of your stay.

Thank you very much.  



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