Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email
From the President

Why I’m serving

By Luis J. Rodriguez
President, State Bar of California

Luis RodriguezLong before I stepped into my role as State Bar president on Oct. 12, I had already begun pondering the many issues that I would tackle in this post.

I had spent months in wonderment of what could be expected.  And as the date of my inauguration as president got closer, my anxiety — and optimism — grew in anticipation of this great charge that I would take on as part of my life for the next year.

But after the Chief Justice of California, the Honorable Tani Cantil-Sakauye administered the oath of office, all anxiety, all guessing, all day-dreaming evaporated. Finally, I stood before family, friends and peers and felt at ease. I felt like I was home.

For the first time in a long time, I was able to share what motivated me to seek this post. It was very simple: access to justice.

For almost 20 years, I have proudly served as a deputy public defender. I have seen the best and worst of humanity. Many times I questioned myself as to why it was important to be part of judicial system that deals with such human drama on a daily basis. Although my answers would vary slightly depending on the case that came across my desk, I could always turn to what  has kept me committed to this work. It was my love for our Constitution and my obligation to advocate for those who many times were judged as undeserving.

I remember one robbery case that turned out less simple than everyone around me expected. My client at the time was a teenager who faced state prison time for robbery – in this case pushing another child and stealing his bike.

With a shaven head and slow gait, the boy cast an image of the stereotype of a gang member. But after we talked for awhile, I realized that this boy's outer appearance was not a true reflection of his person. He was slow to react to my questions and didn’t seem to understand me until I spoke to him in Spanish. Then I noticed a deep scar that ran from his forehead to the back of his skull, traces of a bike injury that almost took his life when he was 6. His mother revealed that her son had profound learning problems, but had been advanced from grade to grade without receiving any special education. I arranged for an IQ test and we learned the boy had the mentality of an 8-year-old child.

Then the battle began. For months, I fought his school district to have him designated as mentally disabled in order to ensure that he received the necessary rehabilitative services. Yet those battles were lost. Our last resort was to appeal the school district's findings. We presented this case before an administrative state agency. After days of testimony, the administrative law judge agreed with us. Instead of going to prison, he became eligible for services from a local center for the mentally disabled. It was a satisfying victory that I never forgot and showed me how the justice system could prevent rather than cause harm to society’s most vulnerable.

I grew to understand that our character is formed by the obstacles that we encounter in life. Along the way, we pick up tools that help us overcome or break down those obstacles. For me, my legal education was an invaluable tool. As I encountered and overcame each barrier, I saw that I had set course down a certain road, a path that led me to seek access to justice for others.

Court funding, legal services and helping vulnerable communities are critical components that strengthen our democracy. Without these, we do not have justice. Therefore, as president, I am committed to the continued support of these valuable components of our democracy. I, along with the Board of Trustees and our partners in the State Bar, will seek partnership with our various stakeholders to assure that the voice for access to justice is not muffled or silenced. The anchors and tools will be useful and relevant as I dedicate my time on behalf of these causes.

As my tenure as president progresses, I will give you updates on how the State Bar is keeping on the path to the preservation of access to justice. I will also keep you informed regarding other issues that are of interest to various stakeholders. I look forward to serving as president, and I hope that you will join me as we continue to improve our profession.