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Hispanic Civil Rights Group at Center of Sotomayor Fight


Cesar Perales has fought his share of critics over the years, in legal battles for minorities denied jobs, bilingual classes in schools and more Latino police officers.

But none of those crusades compares with the tempest his Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has stirred because of the dozen years that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor served as one of its board members.

Conservatives have called the group’s stances against capital punishment and for abortion rights, as well as its advocacy of affirmative action in worker discrimination cases, “extreme” and “shocking.” Some have suggested Sotomayor’s longtime association with the group is an indication that she is biased and would be unable to render impartial decisions as a Supreme Court justice.

The critiques leading up to this week’s Senate hearings on Sotomayor’s confirmation have stunned Perales, who calls them an attempt to derail her nomination by over-politicizing the work of his legal defense fund.

“You have a reputable group that has stood up for the civil rights of Latinos for 37 years,” said Perales, the group’s president. “To suddenly be accused of being something bad, and that anyone associated with it should not be allowed to serve on the Supreme Court, to me is shocking.”

Perales and two other attorneys founded the fund, now known as LatinoJustice PRLDEF, in a Manhattan office building in 1972. They modeled it after one of the most high-profile civil rights organizations in the country, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

On Saturday, officials of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, meeting in New York for the civil rights group’s centennial celebration, addressed Sotomayor’s link to LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

“Today, the NAACP is standing with us in our efforts to ensure that Sonia Sotomayor is confirmed,” Perales told a news conference.

His group points to suits like Aspira v. New York City Board of Education as among its biggest accomplishments, forcing city schools to implement bilingual education for non-English speaking students.

Another suit against the city’s police department brought about an increase in the number of Latino officers into the police force. The group mounted a successful legal challenge in 1981 that postponed city elections over concerns about redistricting.

Sotomayor held leadership roles on the legal defense fund’s board from 1980 to 1992, starting soon after she graduated from law school and began working, leaving it when she became a federal judge. Perales has described her role as helping with fundraising and setting policy and said she was not directly involved with the group’s legal arguments and activities.

In that period, the group brought several lawsuits in which minority workers claimed discriminatory treatment that kept them from jobs or promotions.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, used the word “extreme” to describe the PRLDEF’s views on capital punishment and race.

“This is a group that has taken some very shocking positions with respect to terrorism,” Sessions said, citing the legal defense fund’s defense in 1990 of Puerto Rican nationalists who 36 years earlier had wounded five lawmakers during an attack on the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sessions’ Senate aides also raised concerns about the legal defense fund’s ties with the community activist group ACORN, an organization embroiled on voter registration disputes with Republicans.

Perales said his group and ACORN were associated in one lawsuit that dealt with low-income tenants, an area of interest for both organizations.

“We’re not ashamed of that. If we’re going to be involved in helping poor people, we’re obviously going to have contact” with other groups that work in that area, he said.

The NAACP “would like to see Sen. Sessions tone down his rhetoric,” NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous told the news conference. “His description of our sister organization as ‘extreme’ is reminiscent of his previous comment about us as ‘communist’ and ‘un-American.’”

However, Jealous added, “We believe that Sessions has an opportunity to be a bridge-builder. … If he were to switch we would all take notice and celebrate that.”

A coalition of 25 Hispanic organizations recently sent Sessions a letter expressing concern at PRLDEF’s portrayal. Mayor Michael Bloomberg weighed in with a statement of support for the group.

“While we have not always agreed on every issue, the group has made countless important contributions to New York City,” Bloomberg said this week.

Republican senators have questioned whether Sotomayor’s work with PRLDEF might have influenced her decision to join two other judges in dismissing a discrimination suit by White New Haven, Conn., firefighters who claimed they were denied promotions because of their race.

The Supreme Court last month reversed that decision by Sotomayor and two other appeals court judges.

The case bears similarities to a case PRLDEF brought on behalf of Hispanic New York City sanitation workers who sought to stop White employees from getting promotions, arguing that the promotion exams unfairly disadvantaged minorities. Sotomayor chaired the board’s litigation committee at the time.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell questioned whether Sotomayor’s decision in the firefighters case showed “favoritism for particular groups.”

Perales said PRLDEF’s primary function has been to use existing law to work toward ensuring equal opportunity.

Some people “think Latinos ought not avail themselves of their rights,” Perales said. “I interpret what is going on as really amounting to Latinos don’t have a right to form a civil rights organization and they don’t have a right to bring lawsuits to protect their interests.”

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