The teenager carried a long-handled hoe. Her bosses had left her unsupervised to work the vast, northern Illinois vegetable field. As the summer sun beat down, she moved up and down the rows clearing weeds. When it came time for the midday break, Linda Reyna YaÃ±ez sought refuge under a shade tree-to read. At that time the 16-year-old from the Rio Grande Valley was devouring books by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, and anything she could find by Thomas Hardy.
YaÃ±ez was no stranger to the fields. She had spent earlier summers picking cotton in Texas. Often there was no bathroom during the long days between the rows-a fact that still grates. But the hard work paid off at the end of each summer, when she and four siblings used the money they’d earned to buy school supplies and clothes.
YaÃ±ez’s improbable life journey has taken her from farm fields to Harvard University to her current position as the first Hispanic female appellate judge in Texas history. Now she’s on the move again.
YaÃ±ez is running to become the first Hispanic woman to sit on the Texas Supreme Court. She’s challenging incumbent Republican Justice Phil Johnson for the Place 8 seat. No Democratic candidate has won statewide office since 1994, but YaÃ±ez hopes to ride a Democratic wave sweeping the nation and exploit disgust in Texas over the court’s big-business bias.
Interviewed in May at her Edinburg office, YaÃ±ez wore a red dress with a neat white cardigan, white shoes, and a matching white handbag. She’s petite and speaks clearly with energy, often interrupting herself with another thought.
When she was born, her family had lived in Rio Hondo in the Rio Grande Valley for generations, but without connections that could help them overcome their status as working poor. Her parents, both manual laborers and each the oldest in their families, helped put their younger brothers and sisters through school. Jobs in the Valley in the 1960s were scarce for people without much education, so by the time YaÃ±ez reached high school, her parents had moved to Illinois for steady factory jobs. YaÃ±ez stayed with her grandmother in Rio Hondo, where she thrived as an honor student, cheerleader, and carnival queen.
Her parents and grandparents doted on her. Her well-educated aunts and uncles encouraged her to go to college. In the migrant camps, she and her sisters befriended the crew leaders’ sons, who took the girls on trips to museums in Chicago. For YaÃ±ez, new horizons opened.
After graduating from Rio Hondo High School, she stayed in the Valley to attend college at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. One summer she had what she called the most difficult job of her life, working on an assembly line in a factory that made plastic lids for fast-food cups. She was allergic to the plastic and vomited every day until she quit and took a job at a drug store.
A recruiter from President Nixon’s Cabinet Committee on Opportunity for the Spanish Speaking convinced her to spend a year in Washington scoping out possible careers at federal agencies. The work did not appeal to her. She married and had a child. After a year, she returned to the Valley to raise her daughter. In 1971, she settled in Weslaco and took a job as a first grade teacher.
Teaching by day, she volunteered evenings and weekends with voter drives for the 1972 George McGovern presidential campaign, an effort headed in the Rio Grande Valley by David Hall, now executive director of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. She turned out to be a star political recruiter.
“Linda’s a very engaging personality and doesn’t take no for an answer readily, and she had lots of friends and lots of relatives,” Hall says. “And so we had most of Rio Hondo working on the effort. And they were all a good-looking bunch of women. They could stop traffic on any street corner in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Over the course of the campaign, YaÃ±ez got to know Hall, who found her to be bright and a talented public speaker. He saw in the schoolteacher someone with “courtroom poise that is lacking in so many lawyers,” so he encouraged her to attend law school. She resisted, seeing the move as a tremendous risk. Her marriage had failed, she was supporting a daughter alone, and she’d have to leave her steady teaching job to attend law school.
In March 1972, YaÃ±ez says, Hall showed up at her home with an application to Texas Southern University Law School in Houston, and said, “You need to do it now.” She filled out the paperwork, left to teach migrant students in Nebraska for the summer, and came home to an acceptance letter.
At Texas Southern, she took an internship her first summer and returned to the fields of northern Illinois, this time advising migrant workers about their rights regarding wage issues. She had found her niche. She spoke Spanish and, more importantly, she easily gained workers’ trust by telling them her life story.
“For me, the law was more real because I was thinking, ‘How does the law address injustice for me?’ I had experienced it,” she says. “And when I was talking to our clients, they could relate to me much more closely than the other students.”
After graduating, she took a job with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second daughter when she took the bar exam in Chicago in a room separate from the men. She says some had complained she might go into labor and distract them. Other female students volunteered to take the test with her.
As a young lawyer, she started to make a name for herself nationally for her work on immigration and Fourth Amendment rights, defending workers-some of them U.S. citizens-detained on immigration raids in Midwestern factories. YaÃ±ez eventually returned to the Rio Grande Valley with her two young daughters and took over the immigration program with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, where she worked from 1976 to 1981. When the Reagan administration cut legal aid funding, she went into private practice, continuing to take immigration cases and legal-aid work.
In 1991, she secured a full-time job as a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School. She still returns to Harvard each January to teach trial advocacy.
Her appointment to the Texas Court of Appeals owes itself in part to a trip she took as a young lawyer to speak at Georgetown University. Gilberto Hinojosa, a law student there who had heard about YaÃ±ez’s work in Chicago, invited her to speak at an immigration law forum. Hinojosa went on to a career as lawyer, justice on the 13th Court of Appeals, and Cameron County Judge. In 1993, he encouraged Gov. Ann Richards to make history by appointing YaÃ±ez to the court.
“She was just very sure, very articulate,” Hinojosa says of her days as a fledgling attorney. “It was the early days of empowerment of the Hispanic community, and she made it clear that she wanted to be part of that future.”
In those days, Hispanic women were a small minority in the legal profession. YaÃ±ez remembers judges who called her “honey” in court, and clients who questioned her ability to represent them because she didn’t look like other attorneys.
“You get so used to it, [so you say], ‘OK, I’ll figure out a way around it,'” she says. “I just am not the kind of person to see the wall. I say, ‘How am I going to get through this, around it, on top of it?'”
YaÃ±ez likes to say the current all-Republican Texas Supreme Court has a “groupthink” problem, that there is no true debate. She says the justices share similar backgrounds, and though she is careful to interpret the law as it is written, she says she knows life experiences can skew a court’s decision.
Those experiences too often lead to a pro-defendant bias, court critics say. A number of recent rulings illustrate the critique, but one of the most notorious is a ruling on behalf of homebuilder Bob Perry, whose family has given more than $250,000 to members of the court. A suburban Fort Worth couple sued Perry Homes for refusing to fix a faulty house in 2000. Two courts upheld the couple’s $800,000 award, but on May 2 of this year, the Supreme Court overturned the rulings. The decision attracted widespread media coverage and prompted a public shaming from pro-plaintiff groups.
While that kind of bad publicity may well buoy YaÃ±ez’s prospects in November, it’s hard to say how many voters are actually paying attention. Many will likely vote their party or for the candidate to whom they can best relate.
YaÃ±ez’s opponent, incumbent Justice Johnson, is a tall, polite man with a gentle West Texas drawl. The 63-year-old wears large-lens glasses and has silver-gray hair that matches his suit. Interviewed in an Austin hotel lobby, he sported a double-flag lapel pin: Texas and the United States.
Johnson says the recent surge in pro-defendant opinions can’t be attributed to contributors. “It may wax, it may wane, but we are bound pretty well by what happens in the trial court, the way the case is submitted to the jury. We are bound by the record, and by the law, and I really don’t keep count,” he says. “I decide each case based upon the record as it’s presented and the facts and the law.”
He denies allegations that the court members think alike, citing the statistic that dissenting opinions were issued in more than 40 percent of cases last year. Even when the court issues unanimous opinions, individual justices debate vigorously beforehand, he says.
Yet the court’s record suggests otherwise. In a law-review article published in 2007, University of Texas School of Law professor David Anderson found that defendants won 87 percent of the tort cases decided by Supreme Court opinions in 2004 and 2005.
It wasn’t always that way. In the 1980s, there were strong ties between Democratic members of the court and the plaintiff’s bar. Republicans, led by Karl Rove, targeted the court and in 1988 campaigned against the influence of trial lawyers. The Republicans raised $10 million, and all the targeted justices lost their seats. Since 1994, only Republicans have been elected to the court.
“The first years of the Republican Supreme Court were not as dramatically pro-defendant as they are now,” Anderson says. “It was sort of gradual, but it has definitely become more aggressively pro-defendant.”
A majority of the court has swung so far to the right that even some of its own judges have recoiled at recent rulings. On May 16, the court ruled 6-3 in favor of McAllen Medical Center in a long-running malpractice lawsuit. The hospital was asking the court for a writ of mandamus-a seldom-used judicial maneuver that allows the defendant to do an end run around the appeals process. Rather than wait for a decision in the lower courts before appealing, McAllen Medical Center asked the higher court to dismiss the case.
The 13th Court of Appeals, where YaÃ±ez sits, had already denied the hospital’s request for mandamus. The Supreme Court approved it, saying the problems associated with medical malpractice lawsuits were too costly to be delayed with a trial.
The ruling is an extraordinary departure from precedent. So big, in fact, that it warranted a reply based on a cartoon fantasy. State Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright opened his dissenting opinion with lyrics from the theme song to the 1992 Disney animated film Aladdin.
A whole new worldA new fantastic point of viewNo one to tell us noOr where to goOr say we’re only dreaming …It’s crystal clearThat now I’m in a whole new world with you.
The dissent continued: “A whole new world in mandamus practice, hinted by opinions in the last few years, is here. The Court’s heavy reliance on costs and delay to support its conclusion that the hospital has no adequate remedy by appeal marks a clear departure from the historical bounds of our mandamus jurisprudence.”
Signaling that the decision could make it harder for plaintiffs to make lawsuits stick, the dissent continued: “Such cases should be the exception; they may now have become the rule.”
Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justice Harriet O’Neill joined Wainwright in the dissent. Justice Johnson signed on with the majority, in favor of the hospital.The son of an Air Force officer, Johnson grew up traveling with his family until they landed in Lubbock, where he went to high school, then received a bachelor’s degree from Texas Tech. He joined the Air Force and fought as a pilot in Vietnam for a year. He says he loved to fly and intended to make a career of the military. “They gave you the gas, they gave you the airplane,” he says, “they gave you the paycheck. I mean, you know, what more could someone ask?”
For “family reasons,” though, he decided to find a career that would let him stay in Lubbock. By the time he entered law school, he and his wife, Carla, had four children. They’d have another before he graduated from Texas Tech Law School in 1975. “So I became a lawyer to support my family,” he says.
He settled into the large Lubbock law firm, Crenshaw, Dupree & Milam, and for the next 23 years worked on behalf of their corporate clients and individual plaintiffs. Though he worked on cases ranging from family law to writing wills to personal injuries, he focused primarily on trial law. He advised state lawmakers to extend corporate tax benefits to business partnerships, and narrow the rules dictating where lawsuits could be filed.
He won election to the 7th Court of Appeals in Amarillo in 1998 and became chief justice of that court in 2002. In 2005, Gov. Rick Perry appointed him to the Supreme Court. He replaced Justice Michael Schneider, whom President Bush had appointed to a federal court. He was elected to the seat in 2006. This year he’s trying to earn a full six-year term.
Johnson admits the court has been challenged by a backlogged docket, partly because of high turnover between 2000 and 2005, when seven of the nine justices joined the court. When new justices arrive, it takes time for them to learn the system, but they are now chipping away at the backlog, he says.
“I remember that everything that comes to us has a lot of emotional equity in it, on both sides, and I worry about it,” he says. “And it ought to be a worrying process at that level. It ought to be. You ought to have time. You don’t want to rush things out.”
For all YaÃ±ez’s professional adventures, in many ways she hasn’t gone far from Rio Hondo. Her office in the 13th Court of Appeals, on the fifth floor of the Hidalgo County administration building in Edinburg, overlooks the brown brick building where she volunteered for the McGovern campaign in 1972.
“She clawed her way up in the legal profession to become judge, and she has the respect of virtually everybody in the profession down here,” says former mentor Hall. “She has not only the intellectual skills, but also the gravitas to pull it off.”
These days, she reads her books not under a shade tree, but in the back of an air-conditioned car as she travels the state raising money for the campaign. She spent more than $100,000 to win a tough primary race against Galveston District Judge Susan Criss. So far, she’s raised almost as much in her general election bid, traveling often to urban-area fundraisers. It can cost millions to run a competitive statewide campaign. It’s too early to tell whether she’ll have enough to buy television advertising. “It all depends on the account balance in October,” she says.
YaÃ±ez likes to say that people smarter than her-mainly state Democratic Party leaders and consultants-recruited her to run because they know she can win. She says she hopes a Democratic base energized by the contested presidential primary, independents frustrated with Republican politics, and high-profile problems in the state Supreme Court will propel her to victory.
“Those of us in the legal profession, we’ve known for years what’s going on,” she says. “The truth is getting out in laymen’s terms by some of these articles that are being written and some of these editorials, and I think that’s going to affect the electorate.”
She’s working with groups in urban areas to register Democratic voters. During the primary, she sent out mailers targeting white women older than 45-in other words, Hillary Clinton supporters-and she suspects that effort put her over the top. She will need them and many more to win in the general election, which she thinks is possible.
“I would say that given the turnout and the enthusiasm in the Democratic Party this year, which is unprecedented, I think we can,” she says.
Elizabeth Pierson Hernandez is an Austin-based freelance writer and former Capitol reporter for Freedom Communications newspapers in the Rio Grande Valley.