Hernandez v. Texas
" A Class Apart"
by Jenny Cobb, Associate Curator of Exhibitions
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court extended constitutional rights to Mexican Americans in the landmark civil rights case Hernandez v. Texas.
Before the ruling, Mexican Americans were officially classified as white but faced overt discrimination and segregation. In 1950, Pete Hernandez was charged with murder and found guilty by an all-white jury in Jackson County, Texas. Gustavo “Gus” Garcia, a Mexican American civil rights lawyer, agreed to represent Hernandez's appeal in order to challenge the state’s systematic exclusion of persons of Mexican origin from all types of jury duty. After the original guilty verdict was upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
In the first case to be tried by Mexican American attorneys before the U.S. Supreme Court, Garcia argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed protection not only on the basis of race but also class. While Mexican Americans may be white, the established pattern of discrimination against them proved they were also “a class apart.” In justifying an all-white jury, the State of Texas argued in turn that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause covered only whites and blacks, and that Mexican Americans were white.
Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, extending constitutional protection to Mexican Americans and barring group-biased discrimination. In excluding Hispanics from jury duty, Texas had unreasonably singled out a class of people for different treatment and deprived the defendant of the equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution. The Court held that Mexican Americans were “a class apart,” a distinct group entitled to the same constitutional protections as other minorities under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Pete Hernandez received a new trial with a jury that included Mexican Americans, and was again found guilty of murder.
The Supreme Court's decision set a precedent that led to successful challenges of employment and housing discrimination, school segregation, and voting rights barriers against Mexican Americans. The case literally helped improve the lives of millions of Latinos nationwide.
Courtesy of Jamail Center for Legal Research, Tarlton Law Library, The University of Texas School of Law
Time Period: 1946 - 1970
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