MEDIA CONTACT:  Diane Curtis   415-538-2028

San Francisco, September 04, 2009

Cruz Reynoso, the first Latino to serve on the California Supreme Court, will receive the State Bar's Bernard E. Witkin Medal next week for his "significant contributions to the quality of justice and legal scholarship" in California.

The medal, established in 1993, is awarded each year to "those legal giants who have altered the landscape of California jurisprudence." It will be presented to Reynoso on Friday at the State Bar's Annual Meeting in San Diego.

"Justice Reynoso has been a champion on the side of providing full access to justice to all throughout his career," said State Bar President Holly Fujie. "This medal simply celebrates his unfaltering commitment to the justice system and his extraordinary efforts to obtain equal rights for all of us."

Known as a civil rights champion for decades, Reynoso, 78, has worked as a lawyer, community organizer, law professor, legal services program director, appellate court justice and state Supreme Court justice. He has served three California governors and four U.S. presidents. And in 2000, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in recognition of his "compassion and work on behalf of the downtrodden."

A farmworker's son raised with 10 siblings in an Orange County barrio, Reynoso was introduced to segregation, discrimination and other injustices at an early age. He spent his childhood summers topping onions and picking fruit in the San Joaquin Valley, once becoming too exhausted and dehydrated to move and once facing a delay in the entire family's summer pay. But from early on, Reynoso also worked to make a difference. As a boy, for example, he thought it was unfair that his parents and neighbors had to trudge a mile into town to pick up their mail because the carrier's route ended just two blocks from their La Habra barrio. So Reynoso collected signatures and successfully petitioned the U.S. Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. for rural delivery.

That early success, he says now, helped fuel his determination to keep "doing things that needed to be done."

In high school, Reynoso set his sights on law school. And after earning a bachelor's degree at Pomona College in Claremont on a full scholarship and spending two years in the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps, he headed for Boalt Hall School of Law at UC-Berkeley. He was the only Latino in his 1958 graduating class.

"My ambition," he recalls, "was to be a lawyer in a small town." Eventually, he and his wife chose El Centro, where he built up a private practice and involved himself in community improvements.

But his work soon led to several government appointments in the mid-1960s. He served as assistant director of the state's Fair Employment Practices Commission and then as staff secretary to Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, eventually winding up in Washington, D.C. as associate general counsel to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In 1968, he returned to California to become deputy director of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a pioneering legal services program for the poor, and was quickly elevated to director, a highlight of his career. At CRLA, he says, he saw firsthand what a difference lawyers can make.

In 1976, he became the first Latino in California history to be appointed to the California Courts of Appeal. And in 1982, when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the state Supreme Court, he became the first Latino to serve on the state's highest court as well.

In 1986, Reynoso, Chief Justice Rose Bird and fellow associate justice Joseph Grodin all failed to win confirmation at the polls following an intense high-profile campaign against them. Reynoso briefly returned to private practice, then joined the faculty at the UCLA School of Law.

In the years since, Reynoso has served as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and chair of the California Post-Secondary Education Commission. And in 2001, he joined UC-Davis School of Law as the first holder of the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality.

These days, Reynoso-who recently remarried and has four children and 17 grandchildren-remains a professor emeritus at the UC-Davis School of Law. Last fall, he was tapped to assist with President-elect Barack Obama's transition to the White House by serving on a justice and civil rights agency review team. And currently, he is active on the leadership council of California Forward, a bipartisan organization seeking to transform state government.

Reynoso says the Witkin Medal is "a particularly meaningful award" for him because he knew Witkin and admired his work. Previous Witkin Medal recipients include Justice Stanley Mosk, Chief Justice Ronald George and Seth and Shirley Hufstedler.

The State Bar of California is an administrative arm of the California Supreme Court, serving the public and seeking to improve the justice system for more than 80 years. All lawyers practicing law in California must be members of the State Bar. By September 2009, membership reached 223,000.