Month Day
May 03

Supreme Court rules in Hernandez v. Texas, broadening civil rights laws

The Supreme Court issues a momentous ruling that clarified the way that the American legal system handled charges of discrimination. In Hernandez v. Texas, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to all racial and ethnic groups facing discrimination, effectively broadening civil rights laws to include Hispanics and all other non-whites.

The defendant, Peter Hernandez, was a Mexican American agricultural laborer, part of the influx of such workers that had come to Texas during and after World War II. Hernandez was convicted of killing a man in cold blood in Jackson County, Texas, but his legal team, which was drawn mostly from one of the oldest Latino civil rights groups in the nation, the League of United Latin American Citizens, appealed. They pored through the records of jury selections in Jackson County, an area with a substantial Hispanic population, and found that not one of the roughly 6,000 jurors selected over the previous 25 years had a Hispanic last name. Citing the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been passed in 1868 and guaranteed equal protection under the law to all African Americans, Hernandez's lawyers claimed he had been deprived of equal protection because discrimination prevented him from being tried by a jury of his peers.

A Texas appeals court upheld Hernandez's conviction, but the case went to the Supreme Court. Lawyers for the State of Texas did not deny the charge of discrimination. Instead, they argued that such discrimination was not prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment, stating that it applied only to African Americans. Writing on behalf of himself and the other eight justices, Chief Justice Earl Warren dismissed this notion, saying, "The Fourteenth Amendment is not directed solely against discrimination due to a 'two-class theory'—that is, based upon differences between 'white' and Negro."

The decision that the Fourteenth Amendment applied to all racial minorities, not just the one its authors had had in mind, has had immense consequences for the Hispanic community and every other minority group that has sought equal protection in the face of racial discrimination. As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, Hernandez v. Texas ensured that every moment of legal progress for one minority was a victory for all.

READ MORE: The Mexican American Family Who Fought School Segregation 8 Years Before Brown v. Board of Ed

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