Cruz Reynoso, the trailblazing lawyer, jurist, law professor and the first Latino California Supreme Court justice, has died at age 90. He died Friday (May 7) at an elder care facility in Oroville, according to his family. Cause of death had not been determined.
In lieu of flowers, the Reynoso family asks for contributions to the Cruz and Jeannene Reynoso Scholarship for Legal Access at the UC Davis School of Law.
Memorial arrangements are pending.
A University of California, Davis, School of Law professor from 2001 to 2006, he remained devoted to the law school, and the University of California, as an emeritus professor — teaching students, speaking at events and leading special projects until recently. To the School of Law community, he was the civil rights icon who always had a moment to talk in the halls, about the law, public service or just how things were going.
“The passing of Cruz Reynoso is a deeply felt loss for the UC Davis community,” Chancellor Gary S. May said. “He was not only a towering figure in civil rights law, but a humble and dedicated professor who connected strongly with our students and faculty. His dedication to our campus will be remembered and his impact will endure.”
Born into a farmworker family, Reynoso spent a lifetime fighting the prejudices he first encountered during his childhood in Southern California. He spent five decades working in public service, advocating for workers, immigrants and the indigent before becoming the first Latino member of the state Supreme Court in 1982, and the recipient, in 2000, of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton.
Among his many accolades, Reynoso received the university’s highest honor, the UC Davis Medal; and the Hispanic National Bar Association’s highest honor, the Lincoln-Juarez Award.
Dedicated to injustices
“I became a lawyer because I saw so many injustices,” Reynoso said simply, in a 2019 profile published in UC Davis Law’s Counselor alumni magazine.
Soft-spoken, with a gentle demeanor, Reynoso would become more forceful when what he called his “justice bone” was tweaked.
It developed early, when he recognized that the grade school he attended in then-rural Orange County was a segregated school for children of Mexican descent. “They told us we had to attend that school to learn English,” he recalled in the Counselor. “But my brothers and I already spoke English. That didn’t make sense.”
Reynoso later would protest a segregated dance at a local club and the post office’s failure to deliver mail to the Latino barrio where his family lived. He wrote a petition, gathered signatures and successfully lobbied the U.S. postmaster general in Washington, D.C., for rural mail delivery.
This boyhood success helped motivate him to “keep doing things that needed to be done,” he told the California Bar Journal in 2009.
He attended community college, then Pomona College, graduating in 1953. After serving two years in the Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, he enrolled at the UC Berkeley School of Law, where he was the only Latino in his 1958 graduating class.
Reynoso and his wife, Jeannene, moved to El Centro, in California’s Imperial Valley, where he started his own practice. He soon joined the local chapter of the Community Service Organization, the Latino civil rights organization where a young César Chávez was staff director.
Early in his career, he was staff secretary in Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown’s office and associate general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In 1968, at the height of the farm labor movement led by Chávez and Dolores Huerta, Reynoso became the first Latino director of California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit organization. He oversaw eventually successful efforts to ban the short-handled hoe, which required farmworkers to stoop and led to debilitating back problems, and DDT, the deadly agricultural chemical.
He entered legal academia in 1972 as one of the first Latino professors of law at the University of New Mexico. But a second governor named Brown — Pat’s son, Jerry — would bring him back to California in 1976 with an appointment to the Court of Appeals, 3rd Appellate District.
He had considered one day becoming a judge back when he was at the CRLA, Reynoso told the Counselor, but was convinced he was too much of a “trouble-making lawyer for that.” However, “Jerry Brown had other ideas.”
California Supreme Court
Reynoso, Jeannene and their four children moved to a 30-acre ranch in Sacramento County where they had horses, chickens and other animals. In 1981, Brown appointed Reynoso to the state Supreme Court. There, Reynoso said, he was able to “make decisions based on what is right and lawful, and not worry about what people think.”
But in 1986, a conservative movement, stoked by attorney general-turned-governor, George Deukmejian, helped convince voters to oust the so-called “Bird Court,” led by Chief Justice Rose Bird. Bird, Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, the court’s three liberal justices, were forced out. The well-funded recall effort had accused the three of being soft on crime and failing to enforce the death penalty.
Reynoso had voted to uphold California’s death penalty, but the avalanche of criticism buried his judicial record, which included extending environmental protections and individual liberties and protecting civil rights. The politicizing of the judiciary is a major flaw in the governmental system of checks and balances, he told the Counselor: “Judges should not be thinking about the next election when they are making court decisions."
In 1991, Reynoso re-entered academia as a professor at the UCLA School of Law. During this time, he also began what would become an 11-year stint on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where he served as vice chairman. During his service, the commission looked at a range of issues: from civil unrest following a Ventura County jury’s acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King to voting irregularities in Florida in the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Reynoso criticized that election, saying the “greatest sin” was that people were not allowed to vote.
The UC Davis years begin
In 2001, Kevin R. Johnson, then associate dean of the UC Davis School of Law, worked with Dean Rex Perschbacher to bring Reynoso to UC Davis. The inaugural holder of the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality, Reynoso quickly became an integral part of the King Hall community.
"Cruz Reynoso was a national treasure and civil rights icon, not just for Latina/os but for everyone. He dedicated his life to equality and justice for all. UC Davis School of Law is proud that he ended his professional career as part of our community, and was an inspiration to all." — Dean Kevin R. Johnson
Reynoso taught in the areas of civil rights, professional responsibility, appellate advocacy, constitutional law and remedies. He retired in 2006 but remained an active emeritus faculty member for many years, availing his wisdom to any student who sought advice.
In 2011, then-UC President Mark Yudof tapped Reynoso to lead a task force to investigate the pepper spraying of students by UC Davis police after a days-long “Occupy” movement protest on the UC Davis Quad.
The panel, which became known as the Reynoso Task Force, concluded in April 2012 that officers’ use of pepper spray was unjustified. The university responded to this report and other studies with various reforms in place today.
Sowing the Seeds of Justice
Reynoso was the subject of an award-winning 2010 documentary, Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice. A premiere at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre drew state legislators and UC Davis law alums including Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye ’84, who would follow Reynoso to the state Supreme Court, where she became the first Filipina American and second female Chief Justice.
Reynoso’s legacy has been celebrated widely by UC Davis and the larger Northern California legal community. In 2007, he received the UC Davis Medal. In 2016, the Sacramento area Latinx bar association renamed itself the Cruz Reynoso Bar Association. Each year, the group gives out a Defensor de Justicia award. Past winners include Johnson and then-state attorney general, now U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
In 2018, UC Davis Law's La Raza Law Students Association (later renamed the Latinx Law Students Association) presented Reynoso with its inaugural Cruz Reynoso Award for faculty members.
Preceded in death by Jeannene, in 2007, and by his second wife, Elaine Rowen, in 2017, Reynoso is survived by four brothers and four sisters; four children and their spouses, Trina and Duane Heter, Ranene and Bob Royer, Len and Kym ReidReynoso, and Rondall and Pamela Reynoso; two stepchildren and their spouses, Dean and Laudon Rowen, and Hali Rowen and Andy Bale; and 17 grandchildren and three stepgrandchildren, and two great grandchildren.
Top photo: Cruz Reynoso in his home office in a recent photo. (Jose Perez/UC Davis)