Vol. 17 No. 2 (February, 2007) pp.172-175
LATINOS AND AMERICAN LAW: LANDMARK SUPREME COURT CASES, by Carlos R. Soltero. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006. 252pp. Paperback. $19.95. ISBN: 0292714114. Hardcover. $45.00. ISBN: 029271310X.
Reviewed by Steven Tauber, Department of Government & International Affairs, The University of South Florida. Email: stauber [at] cas.usf.edu.
Virtually all of the research on racial discrimination and the law has focused on inequality in general or primarily on African Americans, but there has been minimal scholarship concentrating on civil rights law pertaining to Latinos. Fortunately, Carlos Soltero’s LATINOS AND AMERICAN LAW fills this noteworthy gap in the literature by focusing on fourteen landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases that have directly impacted Latino civil rights. Despite some significant flaws, this work contributes to the fields of equal protection law and Latino politics because it not only addresses a previously ignored subject, but it also demonstrates how contemporaneous public attitudes and shifting political climates shape the development of Latino civil rights law.
LATINOS AND AMERICAN LAW unfolds chronologically and is divided into five distinct periods, each characterized by the reigning chief justice. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Supreme Court sanctioned the American conquest of lands inhabited by Latinos. The Fuller Court ruled that despite the language of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), former Mexican nationals needed federal approval in order to claim title to land that was previously part of Mexico (BOTILLER v. DOMINGUEZ, Chapter-1). The Taft Court ruled that the First Amendment freedom of the press and Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury did not apply in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (BALZAC v. PORTO RICO, Chapter-2).
During the Warren Court a more favorable political and legal climate led to decisions that significantly expanded civil rights for Latinos. The Warren Court ruled that local judicial administrators could not exclude Latinos from juries (HERNANDEZ v. TEXAS, Chapter-3), and it upheld a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required voting registrars to register Puerto Ricans even if they could not speak English (KATZENBACH v. MORGAN, Chapter-4). Although the 1966 landmark case of MIRANDA v. ARIZONA (Chapter-5) applies to all criminal suspects regardless of race, Soltero explains that because Latinos are among the least likely of all racial and ethnic groups to understand their rights, this case is especially significant for them.
The Burger Court’s record on Latino civil rights was more mixed than the Warren Court’s. On the one hand, the Burger Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause does not require equal funding among school districts, even when the poor districts are heavily Latino (SAN ANTONIO INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT v. RODRIGUEZ, [*173] Chapter-6) and that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prevent private companies from refusing to hire legal aliens, virtually all of whom were Latino (ESPINOZA v. FARAH MANUFACTURING COMPANY, Chapter-7). Conversely, the Burger Court’s moderate ideology did result in preventing border patrol agents from pulling over vehicles merely because a driver or passenger appears to be Latino (UNITED STATES v. BRIGONI-PONCE, Chapter-8), and the Burger Court overturned a Texas law denying education to children of illegal aliens (PLYLER v. DOE, Chapter-9).
Soltero then establishes that the extremely conservative legal and political environment surrounding the Rehnquist Court has led to decisions that have undermined Latino civil rights. It bears mentioning that the Rehnquist Court did improve the ability of political refugees to seek political asylum in the United States (IMMIGRATION AND NATURALIZATION SERVICE v. CARDOZA-FONSECA, Chapter-10). However, other Rehnquist Court rulings generally went against Latinos’ civil rights claims. In the area of criminal law the Rehnquist Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not apply to a Mexican national’s property in Mexico, even though American agents conducted the search (UNITED STATES v. VERDUGO-URQUIDEZ, Chapter-11), and it upheld the practice of prosecutors using peremptory challenges to dismiss bilingual veniremen when the defendant speaks exclusively Spanish (HERNANDEZ v. NEW YORK, Chapter-12). Additionally, the Rehnquist Court sided with the Florida legislature’s refusal to create majority-Latino state legislative districts (JOHNSON v. DEGRANDY, Chapter-13), and it would not allow a private individual to challenge an Alabama law requiring that driver’s license examinations be given only in English. (ALEXANDER v. SANDOVAL, Chpater-14).
On the whole, I recommend this book for public law and minority politics scholars. It undoubtedly fills significant gaps in the public law literature dealing with race. Additionally, Soltero is generally successful in supporting his claim that the Supreme Court’s Latino civil rights decisions are a product of the political and cultural environment in which the Court operates. By devoting considerable effort to explaining the social context of the decisions, Soltero persuades the reader that these cases are not decided in a legal vacuum. This strength is most notable in criminal law, especially HERNANDEZ v. TEXAS and MIRANDA v. ARIZONA. Soltero carefully documents how Latinos have suffered from mistreatment and discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. Furthermore, Soltero establishes that these Supreme Court cases are still relevant to Latinos today, especially in light of the “War on Drugs” and September 11th. Although some political scientists may quibble with Soltero’s chronological approach, it does allow him to show the importance of the political climate during each period. Soltero should also be applauded for covering the more obscure, albeit still important, cases that casebooks usually ignore, especially the two pre-Warren Court cases of BOTILLER v. DOMINGUEZ [*174] and BALZAC v. PORTO RICO. Finally, it is worth noting that Soltero is not afraid to insert normative judgments where appropriate. For example, , he courageously and accurately described Chief Justice Taft’s reasoning as “hypocritical” (p.28).
Despite its strengths, this book also suffers from significant drawbacks. First, since Soltero is so concerned with political context, it is surprising that he does not avail himself of the rich literature emphasizing extra-legal influences on judicial decision making. Inspired by Legal Realism and Sociological Jurisprudence, political scientists since the 1940s have studied Supreme Court decisions as a product of politics as much as a product of legal doctrine (e.g., Pritchett 1963; Segal and Spaeth 1993); yet, Soltero ignores this relevant literature. Along the same lines, Soltero underemphasizes significant extra-legal influences on judicial decision making. He does not focus enough on the complexities of interest group litigation, nor does he treat in enough clear detail the influence (both positive and negative) of the United States Department of Justice, particularly the Solicitor General.
The most vexing flaw with this work is that casual editing detracts from the force of its argument. Chapters are inconsistent in their level of scholarship. Some chapters are well-cited; Chapter 2 has over three citations per page and Chapter 12 averages more than four. However, other chapters are poorly cited; Chapters 8-11 each average less than one citation per page, with Chapters 8 and 9 averaging one citation for almost every three pages. There are glaring citation omissions. For example, Soltero writes, “discrimination against Asians, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Germans, and Irish . . . has been written about elsewhere” (p. 107). However, he provides no citation referencing these sources. Again, Soltero alludes to scholarly research on mass deportations of Mexicans in the 1930s, but he offers no record of these sources (p.108). There are also sloppy editorial errors. For example, Soltero writes, “The Burger Court that considered PLYLER was virtually identical to the Burger Court that considered RODRIGUEZ, the sole change being that President Ford had appointed Justice John Paul Stevens . . . when Justice William Douglas resigned in 1975” (p.119). Obviously, this statement is incorrect, since Justice O’Connor had also replaced Justice Stewart in the interim between the two cases. In fact, Soltero even discusses O’Connor’s role in the PLYLER case as well as her ascension to the Court (pp.127-128), yet neither he nor the editor corrected the glaring error on page 119.
My reservations notwithstanding, I recommend this book for scholars, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates interested in equal protection law or minority politics. The book’s important contributions to the fields of public law and minority group politics outweigh its noticeable flaws.
Pritchett, C. Herman.  1963. THE ROOSEVELT COURT: A STUDY IN JUDICIAL POLITICS AND [*175] VALUES, 1937-1947. New York: Octagon Books.
Segal, Jeffery A., and Harold J. Spaeth. 1993. THE SUPREME COURT AND THE ATTITUDINAL MODEL. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
ALEXANDER v. SANDOVAL, 532 U.S. 275 (2001)
BALZAC v. PORTO RICO, 258 U.S. 298 (1922)
BOTILLER v. DOMINGUEZ, 130 U.S. 238 (1889)
ESPINOZA v. FARAH MANUFACTURING COMPANY, 414 U.S. 80 (1973)
HERNANDEZ v. NEW YORK, 500 U.S. 352 (1991)
HERNANDEZ v. TEXAS, 47 U.S. 475 (1954)
IMMIGRATION AND NATURALIZATION SERVICE v. CARDOZA-FONSECA, 480 U.S. 421 (1987)
JOHNSON v. DEGRANDY, 512 U.S. 997 (1994)
KATZENBACH v. MORGAN, 384 U.S. 641 (1966)
MIRANDA v. ARIZONA, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)
PLYLER v. DOE, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)
SAN ANTONIO INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT v. RODRIGUEZ, 411 U.S. 1 (1973)
UNITED STATES v. BRIGONI-PONCE, 422 U.S. 873 (1975)
UNITED STATES v. VERDUGO-URQUIDEZ, 494 U.S. 259 (1990)
© Copyright 2007 by the author, Steven Tauber.
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Latinos and American Law: Landmark Supreme Court Cases