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CASE:

HERNANDEZ V TEXAS (1954)

Introduction

 

The origins of Hernandez v. Texas (1954) were grounded in the complex history of the Texas-Mexican borderlands. In 1824 Mexican revolutionaries won their long struggle against Spain for independence. Whereas many Americans wanted to expand westward (in a process later called “Manifest Destiny”), the young nation of Mexico wanted to settle and develop its northern frontier. As thousands of Anglo-Americans began crossing the border and squatting on Mexican lands, Mexican officials created the Empresario system, which gave cheap or even free land in the province of Tejas y Coahuila to American settlers provided they renounce their U.S. citizenship, converted to Roman Catholicism, and free their slaves. In just a decade, tens of thousands of Americans had settled in Texas. Concerned at the arrival of so many “Texians,” the Mexican government suspended the Empresario System in 1830. When Mexican President Santa Anna attempted to strengthen the central government's power in 1835, several provinces, including Tejas and Coahuila, openly rebelled. In 1837 Texians won their bid for independence, and Texas became an independent nation. The annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 sparked the U.S.-Mexican War from 1846-1848, by which American forces seized Mexico’s northern frontier. According to Article 9 of the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo, which ended the conflict, Mexicans who chose to remain in lands held by U.S. forces “shall be incorporated into the Union of the United States. and be admitted at the proper time (to be judged of by the Congress of the United States) to the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States, according to the principles of the Constitution; and in the mean time, shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property, and secured in the free exercise of their religion without; restriction.”

 

Yet by the 1890s, Texans of Spanish-speaking descent, known as Tejanos, had been forced into a system of segregation similar to that of African Americans and forced to work menial jobs on the margins of Anglo-American society. Pedro “Pete” Hernandez and Caetano “Joe” Espinosa were two such individuals. On February 23, 1951, Espinoza, a 4o-year old local cotton planter, went to Chinco Sanchez’s Tavern, Sprung’s Grocery in Edna, Texas, to talk with his workers about harvesting his fields. One of his employees was a 24-year old gas station attendant and cotton-picker named Pete Hernandez. The conversation soon turned into a personal argument between Hernandez and Espinoza. Espinosa made fun of Hernandez’s injured leg and sarcastically asked, “what woman would want to be with him.” Infuriated, Hernandez stormed off, went home to retrieve a rifle, and murdered Espinosa in cold blood on the street in front of the cantina.

 

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

 

Within 24 hours, local police quickly arrested Hernandez, and all-white grand and petite juries found him guilty of murder. Pete Hernandez’s family secured the legal services of Gustavo “Gus” Garcia and Carlos Carneda to represent him in court. A former Judge Advocate for the U.S. military and delegate to the creation of the United Nations, Garcia was also a leading member of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a public advocacy group for Hispanics which played a similar role to the one played by the NAACP for African-American rights. In October 1951, Garcia and Carneda defended Hernandez before another all-white jury. The attorneys asserted that Herandez had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to due process and Fourteenth Amendment right to equal justice under law. Although considered “white” to register for jury duty, Anglo-American court officers frequently used the jury selection process to exclude Mexican Americans. Therefore, Hernandez had been denied his rights to a trial “of his peers.” Prosecuting attorney countered that because Hispanics were considered “white” under Texas law, there had been no racial discrimination in Hernandez’s case. After only four hours of deliberation, the jury found Hernandez guilty of premeditated murder and sentenced him to 99 years in prison.

 

Throughout spring and summer, 1952 Garcia and Carneda appealed their case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. On June 18, Judge Lloyd Witten Davidson upheld Hernandez’s conviction. The judge asserted that “Mexicans are white people.” Accordingly the “grand jury that indicted appellant and the petit jury that tried him being composed of members of his race, it cannot be said, in the absence of proof of actual discrimination, that appellant has been discriminated against in the organization of such juries and thereby denied equal protection of the laws.”

 

Undaunted, Garcia and Carneda successfully appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court on a writ of error. During arguments, Garcia made a poignant argument that while arguing Hernandez’s initial case in the Jackson County courthouse, he attempted to enter a bathroom marked “Whites Only” only to be directed to another restroom labeled “Blacks Here and Hombres Aqui (men here).” Thus, in the same courthouse where Mexican Americans were supposedly considered “white,” they were forced to use segregated facilities.

 

Citation and Decision

Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954)  | Full Decision

 

On May 3, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking for a unanimous court, reversed Hernandez’s conviction. Warren maintained that the fact that no Americans of Mexican descent had served on a Texas jury in thirty years showed a clear violation of due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment did not just apply to “races” such as blacks or whites but special groups within society who suffered discrimination. As Warren maintained, “[w]hen the existence of a distinct class is demonstrated, and it is further shown that the laws, as written or as applied, single out that class for different treatment not based upon some reasonable classification, the guarantees of the Constitution have been violated.’’ He also provided a test to determine if social groups qualified to be a distinct class needing judicial relief.

 

Delivered two weeks before the Warren Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board (1954), Hernandez would often be overlooked by legal scholars and ordinary Americans. Yet, it provided a reliable precedent for the future integration of not merely juries but schools, government agencies, and even private organizations.

 

Discussion Questions

 

1. Did Pete Hernandez murder Joe Espinosa?

 

2. Was there a systematic exclusion of persons with Mexican origin in the jury that convicted Pete Hernandez?

 

3. Why were Mexican Americans barred from the jury commission that selected juries and from petit juries in Edna, Texas?

 

4. Is the equal protection of the law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment violated when a state tries a person of a particular race or ancestry before a jury in which all persons of that race or ancestry have been excluded from serving?

 

5. Are Mexicans members of and within the classification of the white race as distinguished from members of the Negro Race?

Links

Oyez: Hernandez v Texas

The Story of Texas: Hernandez v Texas

PBS: A Class Apart (documentary film)