J. Manuel Bañales
Senior Judge – Mediator – Arbitrator – Attorney
Corpus Christi, TX
A longtime resident of Corpus Christi, Judge J. Manuel Bañales has been a judge in Texas for over 27 years. Judge Bañales earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from the University of Texas-El Paso, and then a law degree from the University of Houston Law Center (formerly the Bates College of Law). A few years after first being licensed in 1975, Judge Bañales joined with several other attorneys across Texas to create what eventually became the Hispanic Issues Section of the State Bar of Texas.
Judge Bañales served as District Judge of the 105th Judicial District Court for Kenedy, Kleberg, and Nueces Counties, Texas from 1987 through 2010. Judge Bañales was appointed by Governor Rick Perry as Presiding Judge of the Fifth Administrative Judicial Region of Texas in January 2007 and served in that position through January 2011.
Judge Bañales was certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Criminal Law and now serves as a Senior Judge in the State of Texas.
Q&A – On the Formation and Importance of the Hispanic Issues Section
1. Tell us about the formation of the Hispanic Issues Section.
In 1979, the State Bar of Texas, along with other Texas agencies, was up for sunset review before the Legislature. The Legislature had previously passed “sunset review” legislation that required most Texas agencies to justify their existence as a Texas agency, and, if an agency failed to do so, the agency would be abolished or would be allowed to continue but without the imprimatur of Texas. The State Bar had become concerned that if it lost its status as a Texas state agency, it would lose its hold on all Texas lawyers through mandatory membership in the State Bar as required by law, and that it would morph into a smaller and weaker association. The State Bar needed everyone’s help.
During my term as President of The Chicano Bar Association of South Texas, Inc. [CBAST], Jim Wray, then a State Bar Director, expressed an interest in attending one of our meetings. CBAST was organized in 1977 to provide a voice and an action group to address the needs of Mexican-Americans in Texas. At the meeting, Jim learned about our concerns, and offered to carry them to the State Bar. In exchange for CBAST’s continued support for the State Bar, Jim offered to support our proposal to establish a section within the State Bar that would address and act on issues specifically affecting the Mexican-American community of Texas. Our understanding is that the final vote of the State Bar Board of Directors was unanimous in approving the creation of the section, which was the first section of the State Bar established not on a substantive area of the law, but rather that was established to focus on social as well as legal issues affecting a significant portion of the people of the State of Texas.
2. The Hispanic Issues Section originally was formed in 1979 as “The Section on the Concerns of the Spanish Speaking Community of Texas.” Why was that particular name selected?
We had long and serious discussions about what name the section should have. It was certainly more difficult than naming one’s first child or any child for that matter. We wanted a name that would stand out and would readily identify our interests and purpose.
CBAST was the force behind the establishment of the section. We conceded at the outset that naming the section “the Chicano Section” was not going to cut it. Because most of the membership was of Mexican-American descent, there was great interest in having the term “Mexican-American” as part of the name. As we worked to generate support among other associations in Texas, we found several Cuban-American and Puerto Rican American lawyers who had expressed interest and concern with what we wanted to accomplish. We also came across others whose parentage was of Spanish, Central American and South American origin. The competing interests in coming up with an acceptable name concerned us. Incidentally, at the time, the term “Hispanic” had not gained wide-spread acceptance; indeed, a significant number of members rejected the term outright.
What we did have in common, though, was the issues that affected the Spanish-speaking and -surnamed community. That was the reason for having groups such as CBAST or Mexican American Bar Associations [MABA] or the Hispanic National Bar Association [HNBA]. We needed a name that clearly identified our interests.
But, we still needed a name that identified our people. Our people. After considerable discussion, we hit upon what clearly set us apart from other peoples in this country, and that was our language, our names. We then came up with “the Spanish-speaking community” as the common, unifying theme that we felt would not offend anyone.
The last step was to put it all together. The Section on the Concerns of the Spanish Speaking Community of Texas.
3. Who would you say was instrumental in the formation of the section? Why do you believe you all were so passionate about bringing the concerns of our community to the State Bar?
Those who were instrumental in the formation of the section include the following:
• Jose R. Rodriguez, the first President of CBAST, Inc., and now State Senator from El Paso.
• Myself, the second President of CBAST, Inc., and second Chair of the Section.
• Esther Chavez, formerly of the Valley and I believe now in El Paso.
• Eduardo Rodriguez, a past President of the State Bar of Texas, of Brownsville.
• Frank Herrera, a personal injury trial lawyer of San Antonio.
• Jim Coronado, now a District Judge in Travis County.
• Tim Gonzalez, formerly of Corpus Christi and now in Dallas.
• Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, later State Representative and now State Senator from McAllen.
As President of CBAST, I made the presentation to the State Bar Board of Directors to establish the section. Because the Legislature was then in session, we invited Hispanic lawyer legislators to attend the meeting. Those who attended included Sen. Raul Longoria of Edinburg, Rep. Irma Rangel of Kingsville, Rep. Matt Garcia of San Antonio, Rep. Paul Moreno of El Paso, and several others. I have no doubt that the presence of these legislators had an impact on the State Bar Board of Directors.
There also were others within the State Bar who provided tremendous support. Of particular importance was Jim Wray, at that time a State Bar Director. I noted some of Jim’s contributions above, and I recently had the opportunity to recognize Jim’s tremendous efforts on behalf of the section in a piece I wrote after his recent passing.
I must also recognize several leading lawyers who actively participated at our organizational general meeting at the 1979 Annual Bar convention in San Antonio. The keynote speaker was the Honorable Reynaldo Garza, the first Mexican-American appointed as a United States District Judge and as a Judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. United States Attorney J. A. “Tony” Canales spoke on federal civil and criminal trial practice. The Honorable Carlos Cadena, Chief Justice of the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio, discussed State appellate law. Vilma S. Martinez, President of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), addressed civil rights issues affecting the Mexican American community. These four great lawyers boosted the attendance at our first meeting to over 150 lawyers from all over Texas.
We were passionate about establishing the section because we wanted to work within the State Bar to address issues that affected the Mexican-American community of Texas. We were aware that there were several Mexican-American bar associations in Texas. But, these groups were primarily focused on the practice of law within their community, and not so much on issues such as immigration, court services, fair housing, voting rights, etc. This is what brought us to the Chicano Bar. We felt that working within the State Bar, we would see more success in meeting the needs of the people.
4. What do you think have been some of the most important achievements of the section?
Our concerns were many, and may be grouped into two: those that affect us as lawyers and those that affect the Hispanic community.
Having certified, competent court interpreters was a pressing need. Although we convinced the State Bar to approve a “Court Interpreters Committee,” it was years before we finally succeeded in having the Legislature pass legislation mandating certified interpreters into our judicial system. Now, most counties with a significant Hispanic population have certified interpreters on the county payroll or on contract to provide translation services. The Office of Court Administration has also adopted procedures to provide access to interpreters for any county in Texas. This is a far cry of what I saw as a lawyer in the 1980’s when a clerk was called upon to translate in a judicial proceeding, when the only qualification the clerk had was that she was Mexican American and spoke some Spanish.
We also demanded the fair treatment of persons in the legal system. Incidents of police brutality were still common when the section was formed. We met with local police authorities, particularly in South Texas, to push for reforms and changes in attitude by police officers. I believe we made a big difference.
Immigration was then and continues to be a hot-button issue. Along with other interested groups and organizations, we worked to streamline procedures in the immigration and naturalization processes. Regrettably, the recent hysteria, phobia and demonizing of immigrants has resulted in setbacks that will be difficult to overcome.
From our time in law school, we have had an interest in seeing more Hispanics in the law school faculty. We recognized that this would take time to achieve, but we have seen more Hispanics join law school faculty in recent years.
5. How do you think the section could most help Hispanic attorneys, and the Hispanic community, today?
We wanted our section to have lawyers from all areas of the law to work together to contribute to the improvement of the Hispanic Bar and to the Hispanic community as a whole. The section is not limited or focused to one area of the law. The strength of the section is the diversity of interest in the law that allows the members to offer different ideas to address and resolve particular issues.
Q&A – On Elected Office
6. What originally attracted you to an elected judicial position?
I was a trial lawyer. I was licensed in May 1975. I tried my first jury trial in January 1976. By 1982, I had tried more than enough cases to qualify for Board Certification. In October of that year, I was Board Certified in criminal law. My first run for elective office was for County Attorney, and, had I won, I saw myself in the courtroom as well as managing the office. I loved the courtroom and the challenge of trying a case to a jury.
When one of our judges announced his retirement, several colleagues encouraged me to run, and I did. I was attracted to the office of judge because I saw myself eventually as a public servant, and working in the courtroom setting as a judge made it even more attractive. Despite my young age when I ran, because of my extensive trial and appellate experience, I felt I was ready to serve as a judge of a District Court of Texas.
The transition from a trial lawyer to a trial judge came rather easy to me. I was well familiar with the trial of a case, the rules of evidence, and dealing with people. Within three months of taking office, I had tried more jury trials than the seven other district judges of the county combined. I was set on a judicial career.
7. What advice would you have for Hispanic attorneys considering running for a judicial position?
A judge decides matters of law, determines the admissibility of evidence, and must effectively manage an ever-growing case docket. For anyone seeking a judicial office, whether by election or appointment, I strongly recommend that the lawyer gain experience as a trial lawyer. Take cases to the jury. Nothing prepares a lawyer for the bench better than jury trial experience.
8. Hispanics appear to be slightly better represented in the judiciary than in the overall legal community, although underrepresented in both. Why do you think this is the case?
The Fifth Administrative Judicial Region of Texas comprises of eleven counties in South Texas. When I became licensed in 1975 in Nueces County, there was no Hispanic on the District Court bench; two of the three county courts at law were filled by Hispanics. In Cameron and Hidalgo Counties, less than half the courts were filled by Hispanics. Today, the region includes 30 District Courts and 19 County Courts at Law. Forty-five of the forty-nine judges (91.8%) are Hispanic. The four non-Hispanic judges are all in Nueces County. No other region of Texas comes anywhere close to the high concentration of Hispanics in the judiciary.
The larger counties in Texas (Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Tarrant) do have several courts filled by Hispanics, but not in proportion to the population of the counties. This is due to the general population and the actual voting population of Texas and of each community. Hispanics just don’t vote in the same proportions as the non-Hispanic voters.
Of course, a voter should not vote on the basis of race or ethnicity or gender. A voter should cast his or her vote for the better (or best) candidate on the ballot. But, this does not happen in the real world. I have seen, time and time again, when the minority candidate is, by any objective measure, the better candidate of the two, he or she will lose to the Anglo/white male candidate where the voter turnout is predominantly Anglo/white. A minority Republican will always lose to an Anglo/white Republican, even when the Republican Party establishment backs the minority candidate. The typical Anglo/white voter just can’t get himself to vote for the minority candidate.
If the Hispanic people of Texas want to see more Hispanics in elected or appointed positions, then they have to go vote. It is a simple proposition. It is an easy thing to do.
Yes, Hispanics are underrepresented in the legal community. To have more Hispanic lawyers in Texas, we have to encourage our children to go to school, to stay in school, to go to college, and to go to law school. We have to nurture them and lead them to become the next generation of lawyers so that we may continue to have Hispanics in the judiciary and in other agencies of government.
I remember during law school that a recent law school graduate claimed that there were too many lawyers in Texas. This was when we had about 30,000 lawyers in Texas. He was going around to the law schools in Texas spreading his message. His solution was to toughen up admissions standards, to make law school curriculum more difficult, and to raise the passing grade on the Bar Exam. I could see that between the lines, what he really wanted was to keep minorities out of the legal profession. Although I disagreed with his main proposition, I suggested that, as an alternative, for a set period of time, no white male should be admitted to any law school and that only minority applicants, including women, should be admitted to law school until the number of minority lawyers was at least at a rate proportional to the population of the State of Texas. He didn’t like the idea. The status quo was maintained.
9. You were a district judge in the Corpus Christi area for over 20 years. How did you see the practice of law change during that time?
There were several significant changes in the practice of law after I became a judge. First, in 1987, the Legislature passed the alternative dispute resolution program. After attending the first State Bar conference on ADR that year, I became a strong proponent of mediation and other ADR settlement practices. I added a provision to my docket control order that the parties mediate the case before the final pre-trial conference. Mediation had a tremendous and positive impact in disposing of many civil cases.
A second significant change came from our Supreme Court, at the Legislature’s behest, in promulgating rules that approved child support schedules and standardized visitation rights and that implemented the federal child support collection program through the Title IV-D courts. These improvements to our family law statutes greatly reduced the ever-increasing family law dockets of many courts.
The Legislature’s tort reform in the 1990’s greatly affected the civil docket. During my first term as judge, a little over 40% of my jury trials were civil cases, of which a good percentage were medical malpractice cases. When I left after six terms, that ratio had gone down to just over 10%. I cannot recall trying a medical malpractice case during my last 10 years on the bench.
The Legislature also brought change to the criminal docket. Most significantly, the right to counsel took a step forward when the Legislature enhanced that right to a right to competent counsel. The courts were charged with the responsibility of ensuring that appointed counsel represent an indigent defendant aggressively, effectively and competently. Bail procedures were also changed to require release on recognizance or on lower bail if the State of Texas was not ready for trial. Although this change was made after I became a Senior Judge, the prosecution is now required to provide meaningful discovery to a criminal defendant.
Finally, the Legislature and the Supreme Court reacted to the vexing issues of electronic communications and their admissibility in evidence, the search and seizure of electronic devices, and storage issues in “the cloud.” Along this line, I am proud to say that I was the first judge in my county to use a computer in my work as a judge. After being frustratingly tired of waiting on counsel to prepare and submit a jury charge, whether on civil or a criminal case, I decided to take on the duty of preparing the charge. Pretty soon, I had developed a good library of jury charges that allowed me, in most cases, to have a working draft before the close of the evidence. Technology, in many cases, can help to speed the administration of justice.
10. What is the one thing that you wish you would have known before you first took the bench in 1987?
It takes time to get things done. Patience and understanding go hand in hand with being a good judge.