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It's A Gray Area: A worthy celebration of the justice system

February 26, 2011|By James P. Gray

I was privileged on Feb. 18 to attend a celebration of how our system works, particularly when good people use it for the right purpose. Sometimes it takes time and patience, but eventually we get it right. The celebration took place at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana, and featured Sylvia Mendez. When she was 8 years old, Sylvia, along with her brothers, Gonzalo and Jerome, was refused admission to an all-white public school here in Orange County.

Sylvia had been born in Santa Ana, and was living there with her family while they rented a farm from a Japanese-American family that had been sent to an internment camp during World War II. But when her aunt took the three children to the all-white school, she was told she could enroll her own children because they were light-skinned, but Sylvia and her brothers would not qualify because they were Mexican.

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So Sylvia's parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, joined forces with the Gomez, Palomino, Estrada and Ramirez families. They filed a lawsuit on March 2, 1945, in federal court in Los Angeles against their respective school districts to enjoin them from such discriminatory policies. This act showed fortitude and courage, but throughout this ordeal all of these families were assisted by many of their relatives and friends, and also by lots of lawyers (which is yet another reason why I am proud of our profession!).

On Feb. 18, 1946, Judge Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and enjoined such segregationist practices in the public schools. He stated without equivocation that: "The equal protection of the laws pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, textbooks and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school associations regardless of lineage."

The original idea for the event came when my colleague, Judge Rick Aguirre of our Superior Court, asked my good friend, Judge Andy Guilford of the federal court, if he would agree to make his courtroom available for a small celebration of the Mendez case on the 65th anniversary, exactly to the day, of Judge McCormick's ruling. Of course, Judge Guilford enthusiastically agreed.

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