1980s: Responding to Broader Civil Rights Needs

During the 1980s, PRLDEF changed direction to respond to broader civil rights issues such as wage disparities and better job opportunities.


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The 1980s ushered in a new era of conservatism that would directly impact the work of civil rights organizations for years to come. A backlash to the expansive interpretations of the Constitution were embodied by the Reagan administration and its deliberate efforts to change the composition of the country’s judicial appointments. Interpretations that were typically deserving of precedential status and stare decisis were questioned by an increasingly active judiciary.

At the same time, PRLDEF continued the extensive litigation docket that began in the 1970s especially because so many of the complex cases it was litigating would take many years to resolve. It also delved more into community outreach and involvement, by joining community groups such as the Puerto Rican /Latino Education roundtable and a partnership with the National Puerto Rican/Hispanic Voter Participation Project.

In 1980, a victory in Luevano v. Campbell meant that the federal government would phase out the use of the PACE exam (an exam that was found to be discriminatory against Latinos) for federal entry-level civil service jobs.

Redistricting and Electoral Participation

In 1981, PRLDEF and MALDEF joined forces for the very first time, to represent Puerto Rican and Mexican voters in Chicago challenging the redistricting of state legislative districts. The settlement in Del Valle v. Illinois State Board of Elections created two new majority-Latino districts. The court’s decision noted that the new districts “fortified by instructions from the court” resulted in a fair opportunity for Latinos to elect candidates of their choice. PRLDEF and MALDEF continued their collaboration the very next year in Velasco v. Bryne, a Voting Rights Act challenge on behalf of Chicago’s Puerto Rican and Mexican voters to the city’s aldermanic redistricting plan. And once again Latino voters were successful in strengthening the Latino districts in their respective neighborhoods.

Also in 1981, New Yorkers awoke to headlines announcing the court ordered postponement of elections scheduled that day for Mayor and City Council after PRLDEF successfully challenged a redistricting plan that precluded additional minority representation on the City Council (Gerena Valentin v. Koch). PRLDEF continued to successfully attack gerrymandering throughout the country, including plans drawn in Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In Jersey City, NJ another PRLDEF Voting Rights Act case made history when hundreds of Black and Puerto Rican voters were eventually paid money damages for the interference with their right to cast a ballot in June 1985 in a mayoral run-off election in Vargas v. Calabrese. The Election Day challenges were targeted only in Black and Puerto Rican election districts by an incumbent mayor who deliberately engaged in a “slow down the vote” strategy. He failed to secure reelection that day as minority voters returned from their homes with extra identification and additional voters that stood on line to vote him out. The suit also resulted in a change in New Jersey’s election code that restricted the use of Election Day challenge practices.

Defending the Rights to Work, Travel and Learn

In 1984, PRLDEF (on behalf of the Hispanic Society) sued the New York City Police Department, saying that its promotion exams discriminated against Latinos and African-Americans. The case was settled when the department agreed to promote an additional 100 black officers and 60 Latino officers to sergeant rank.

In this decade PRLDEF attorneys argued their first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and won unanimously. Attorney General of NY v. Soto Lopez was a constitutional right to travel case which challenged New York State laws that awarded veteran civil service exam credits only to veterans who enlisted from New York – not from Puerto Rico. The successful conclusion allowed Puerto Rican veterans to enjoy additional points on their promotional exams.

In the 1980s the education division developed a pilot mentorship program to pair current law students with recent graduates for individual support and assistance. It also held in 1982 its first “Legal Careers Day,” which brought together individuals interested in pursuing a legal career with law students and lawyers. “Law Day,” as it is now called, continues to attract hundreds of attendants annually.

Suits to ensure equal opportunity for Latino school children continued to highlight education rights as bilingual education and bilingual special education cases were filed in Jersey City, New Jersey (Puerto Rican Education Coalition v. Board of Education) and other jurisdictions. Often these cases required additional court actions to stop the termination and layoffs of bilingual teachers.

The 1980s also saw the birth of the official English Only movement when in 1981, Senator S.I. Hayakawa introduced the first ever bill to declare English the official language of the U.S. PRLDEF responded in kind with renewed efforts in advocacy, publications, journal articles, media appearances and litigation. English-Only work rule cases were challenged immediately in New York and New Jersey with one case directly levied against the Mayor of Elizabeth, New Jersey who sought to stop municipal employees from speaking Spanish on the job.

Also, in 1980, a young Puerto Rican lawyer from the Bronx named Sonia Sotomayor joined the Board of Directors. In 2009 she was confirmed as the first Puerto Rican and the first Latina woman on the United States Supreme Court.

In the 1980s M.D. Taracido, Cesar Perales, Jack John Olivero, Jorge Batista, and Linda Flores all served as President & General Counsel.


Click here to read more about the organization's work in the 1990s.

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