Cruz Reynoso, a son of migrant workers who worked in the fields as a child and went on to become the first Latino state Supreme Court justice in California history, has died.
Reynoso passed away May 7 at an elder care facility in Oroville, according to his son, Len ReidReynoso. The cause of death was unknown. Reynoso was 90.
In a legal career that spanned more than half a century and took him from his first job in El Centro to Sacramento, the soft-spoken family man helped shape and protect the first statewide, federally funded legal aid program in the country and guided young, minority students toward the law.
As an early director of California Rural Legal Assistance, Reynoso shepherded the organization’s efforts to ensure farmworkers’ access to sanitation facilities in the fields and to ban the use of the carcinogenic pesticide DDT.
“Many of the suits CRLA brought during his time fundamentally changed the law of this country,” Robert Gnaizda, who worked with Reynoso at CRLA and co-founded the Greenlining Institute, said in an interview he gave to the Los Angeles Times before his death in 2020. “If you want to talk about Latino heroes — and there are a number — I’d say Cruz is at the top of the list.”
But Reynoso, the son of Mexican immigrants, was probably best known for his career’s briefest chapter — his controversial entry to and exit from the California highest court.
When then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. appointed Reynoso to the state Supreme Court in 1981, he said that he did not choose his nominee for the lofty legal position because of Reynoso’s Latino heritage.
Brown did acknowledge at the time that he was “not … unmindful of the need for government to represent the diversity of our state.” But he called Reynoso “the most outstanding candidate I could nominate.” Brown described Reynoso, who served on the state appeals court, as “a man of outstanding intellect, superior judicial performance, high integrity and … rare personal qualities.”
Not everyone agreed. Although liberals and Latino groups lauded Reynoso’s selection, law-and-order organizations, conservatives and George Deukmejian, who was then the state attorney general, attacked Brown’s nominee.
During Reynoso’s confirmation process, retired appellate Justice George E. Paras of Sacramento opposed Reynoso’s nomination, calling him “a professional Mexican” who favored minorities and the poor and whose slowness in processing cases “bottlenecked” the court.