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Former judge keeps in touch with his activist roots

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Retired California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso with Mayda Prego, president of the Hispanic National Bar Foundation

Watch the trailer for the recent movie about Reynoso at the end of this article.​

​This article is part of a series profiling winners of the 2013 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented this month at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention.

Retired California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso’s approach to community activism isn’t complicated.

“If you think something isn’t good, you should do something about it,” he said. “It’s important to take action whether you win or lose.”

“You have to let those in power know they can’t do whatever they’re doing without being challenged,” Reynoso continued. “Very often you’ll be successful.”

Reynoso attributes his success in life to attending Fullerton College in California.

“I had an extraordinary experience at the community college that I attended,” he said. “It was invaluable. On my resume, I always include that I graduated from a community college.”

That resume includes tenure in academia, a law career and public service. Reynoso describes his life’s journey as one where he went “from lawyer to professor to judge.” That’s a long way from picking oranges, which was his first job.

Fostering change at a young age

One of eleven children, Reynoso’s quest for social justice began at an early age when he challenged the local postman’s refusal to deliver mail to his family’s rural Mexican-American neighborhood. Family members had to walk more than a mile to town to pick up their mail while non-minority residents living in new houses next to the barrio received their mail at their homes.

Ten-year-old Reynoso wrote a letter to the U.S. postmaster general in Washington, D.C., petitioning for rural route delivery. He received a reply a few weeks later authorizing mail delivery directly to his family’s home.

NPR: Trailblazer keeps fighting for justice

While in junior high school, Reynoso led a student committee to challenge segregation in local schools. The school board eventually agreed to the students’ proposal.

A civil rights advocate was born.

Reynoso’s commitment to standing up for equal rights would greatly inform his life experiences, including his time at Fullerton College. While studying there, he was elected freshman class president and later became the college’s first Latino student-body president.

Throughout his life and career, he has spoken out against discrimination.

“When I saw something that didn’t seem right, I tried to do something about it,” he said.

Acquiring the skills

Education proved critical in putting Reynoso in a position to do something about the injustices he witnessed. After graduating from Fullerton with an associate of arts degree, Reynoso earned a baccalaureate from Pomona College and a bachelor of laws degree from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

After a serving in the U.S. Army for two years and completing his education, Reynoso taught law before opening a private law practice.

When Reynoso initially enrolled at Fullerton, he planned to study cartooning and commercial art.

“Then I decided to become a lawyer because of the injustices that I saw,” he said. “My justice bone hurt.”

After completing his degree at UC Berkley, Reynoso studied constitutional law at the National University of Mexico as a Ford Foundation fellow. His first full-time teaching job was at the University of New Mexico, where he later became one of the first Latino law professors in the country.

Currently, Reynoso teaches at UC Davis as a professor emeritus and has no plans for taking a traditional retirement. He noted that learning from his students was the “advantage of being a professor and judge.”

Opportunities to advocate

Reynoso took advantage of every opportunity to advocate for the welfare of others. In what he described as his tenure as a “poverty lawyer,” he served as director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

Reynoso was also an associate justice for the Third District Court of Appeals and an associate justice for the California Supreme Court. Further, he served as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1994–2004.

Today he remains a vocal advocate for equal access to higher education.

“Based on the experiences that I had at Fullerton, I can now call upon leaders in California to see different points of view,” Reynoso said. “I want to emphasize that it’s still possible to do things as they were done when I was a young man.”

“I didn’t pay anything for my education at junior college, and I paid less than $100 in fees at Berkley,” he continued. “We’re a rich state in California, and we can afford (to provide education) that doesn’t cost so much.”

The community college has been a very important institution in California, Reynoso said.

“I am an enthusiast for community colleges. They prepare young students professionally,” he said, “and they should teach trades and help adults learn to read. At community colleges, there’s always hope.”

 Trailer for the film "Cruz Reynoso: Sowing The Seeds Of Justice"

 

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