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Profile: The first Latino president of the State Bar of California

Attorney Luis Rodriguez, incoming president of the California State Bar, sits for a portrait in his office in downtown Los Angeles, California, on Thursday morning, August 29, 2013.
Attorney Luis Rodriguez, incoming president of the California State Bar, sits for a portrait in his office in downtown Los Angeles, California, on Thursday morning, August 29, 2013.
Stephanie Diani

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For the first time in its 89-year history, the State Bar of California will swear in its first Latino president this Saturday in San Jose, LA County's deputy public defender Luis Rodriguez. 

He has a self-professed love of the Constitution, but he didn't grow up dreaming of becoming a lawyer. He grew up an outsider. From the California Report, Susan Valot has this profile.

Rodriguez was born in Los Angeles to parents who immigrated to the United States legally.  When he was three years old, they moved the family back to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a border city now known for its violence.

A young Rodriguez struggled to fit in.

"I remember kids making fun of me, saying that – there’s a term in Spanish ... called 'pocho' that is somewhat derogatory of Mexican-Americans and it's used by Mexicans.  And that's how they referred to me," Rodriguez said.  "They called me 'from the other side,' 'del otro lado.'  So in Mexico, I wasn't Mexican because I wasn't born there.  When we came back, even though I'm a U.S.-born citizen, I was not treated as an American."

Rodriguez said he was almost like a man without a country.  He says life in the U.S. presented other challenges.  One of those:  discrimination.

"I remember this one time, when my father got pulled over for a traffic violation and the officer making fun of my father's accent," Rodriguez recounted.  "And I remember as a kid here in San Gabriel Valley, being pulled over and being asked to step out of the car and being searched.  And we asked why and the officers were barking at us, just checking to see who we were."

Rodriguez said he also saw police harass his neighbors.  He said his experiences with law enforcement were not positive.

Those experiences inspired Rodriguez to become a public defender, so he could help protect people against injustice.

He was first exposed to public defending when he worked at the Santa Clara Public Defender's Office in Northern California during law school.

"For me, it truly has been a love of democracy," Rodriguez said.  "I lived in a different country.  I saw what it was to be in a country that called itself a democracy, but really wasn't.  And I saw the lack of protections against government abuse."

Rodriguez worked his way up in the Los Angeles County Public Defender's office, defending those without enough money to hire their own attorneys.  But not with a few bumps along the way.

"There were a couple times where I walked into the courtroom and the bailiff thought I was the interpreter.  Or another time, a judge thought I was one of the defendants," Rodriguez remembered.

He added that once, one of his first assigned clients – a Latino man who'd been around the prison system  already  – didn't want Rodriguez to be his public defender.

"And it struck me because even my own ethnic group had an uncertainty about the quality of representation by their own kind," Rodriguez said.

Years later, he will be not only the first Latino to head the State Bar of California, but the first public defender.  He ran unopposed for the position, which is considered by many in the legal field to be a compliment.

Former state lawmaker Martha Escutia, vice president for government affairs at the University of Southern California, has known Rodriguez for years.  She called him "fair-minded."

Escutia said the fact that Rodriguez is a well-liked public defender means more to her than his Latino heritage.

"He definitely will go the extra mile to look for different stakeholders," Escutia said.  "He definitely will look for stakeholders who perhaps have not been heavily involved in the State Bar.  And he will always be managing the outcome towards a win-win situation, always looking for consensus."

The incoming president takes over the State Bar as California's legal system could potentially deal with immigration  reform  – changes that could bring out more scammers targeting immigrant communities.

Immigration changes could flood California with up to 3 million people suddenly eligible for U.S. citizenship.  Escutia said Rodriguez's background will help.

"If immigration reform does happen – and that's a big if,  I'm not sure –  it will make a big difference to have someone who understands the immigrant community and also understands how that community is constantly being victimized and preyed upon," she said.

Rodriguez has already begun working with state lawmakers to create legislation that would give the State Bar the ability to go after  scamming  attorneys  – and fakes  –  with civil actions, like injunctions.

Rodriguez also wants to focus on court funding, which is something he said affects everybody, from people paying traffic tickets to people fighting evictions or trying to secure restraining orders.

Attorney Eric Alderete worked with Rodriguez through the Mexican-American Bar Association.  He predicts Rodriguez will hit the ground running once he is officially sworn in.

"My hope –  and I think he's already doing it –  is that Luis focuses  on issues of immigration, like he's done, and that he tries to work to diversify the judicial panel," Alderete said.  "Because if you think the California Bar is not diverse, if you look at the judicial officers in this state, it's not very diverse."

California State University Los Angeles political analyst and professor emeritus Jaime Regalado said Rodriguez's selection is a sign that trade associations –  like the California Bar –  are moving closer to reflecting the population.

"It may not be practically very important, but symbolically, I think it is," Regalado said.  "It [underscores] the fact that Latinos and Asians are the fastest-growing demographic groups in California.  And Latinos will be a majority of the state of California in the not-to-distant future."

Regalado, who has studied trade associations, suggested that such organizations as the State Bar are trying to catch up to the state's demographics.

"Many associations of the professions are kind of hamstrung because they have a majority white membership," Regalado said.  "And it necessitates a larger look or a broader look at what causes membership in professional associations not to reflect the population ... they serve."

Regalado said that means looking at the education system, from kindergarten through university.

Incoming California State Bar President Luis Rodriguez said he hopes the day will come when there aren't any more firsts for anyone, including Latinos.

He is surprised it has taken nearly nine decades to have a Latino in charge of the California State Bar, although he points out Latinos have been on its board.

"Although it's a compliment that I'll be the first one, it's also a stark reminder of how far we still are," Rodriguez said, "that it took all of us this long to have a Latino head the agency."