Joaquin Avila, Advocate of Hispanic Voting Rights, Dies at 69
Posted March 15, 2018 7:17 p.m. EDT
Joaquin Avila, a lawyer and civil rights advocate who helped level barriers that kept Hispanic-Americans from voting, getting jobs and going to school, died on March 9 at his home in Shoreline, Washington, near Seattle. He was 69.
The cause was complications of colon and liver cancer, his son Joaquin said.
Avila, a Yale- and Harvard-educated son of Mexican immigrants, was president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in the mid-1980s and later director of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at Seattle University School of Law, where he was an assistant professor.
Both groups counseled victims of discrimination and filed litigation to defend their civil rights.
He also helped frame amendments that in 1982 fortified the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, and he drafted a vanguard 2001 California law that provided even greater protection against discrimination at the polls.
Avila litigated dozens of cases — twice before the U.S. Supreme Court — that challenged city councils, school and judicial districts, and other local jurisdictions that had tried to dilute the votes of racial and ethnic minorities by annexing white suburbs or electing their members at large instead of by district.
Many of the cases originated in Texas and California, but their outcomes often had national ramifications.
Alex Padilla, the California secretary of state, hailed Avila in a statement as a “lion of voting rights.”
Avila maintained that low voter registration and turnout resulted from deliberate barriers, not laziness, and that going to the polls was not some feel-good utopian goal but the foundation of a democracy.
“People don’t vote for reasons,” he told The New York Times in 1989. “It’s not that they are genetically apathetic.”
He argued that the voting rights litigation he pursued was intended not to further polarize Americans politically but to bring them together.
“It is indispensable for the creation of a more cohesive society,” he was quoted as saying in 1997. “Only by integrating voters can we start the long-overdue process of healing racial division in our society.”
Joaquin Guadaloupe Avila Jr. was born on June 23, 1948, in Compton, California. His father was a cement mason. His mother, the former Marguerite Hernandez, was a school secretary.
Even when he was a small boy voting rights were a concern, he recalled in 2012 when he accepted the Harvard Law School Association Award. He was haunted early on by a television image of a mob chasing an elderly black person who was trying to register.
“I could not understand why that was the case,” he said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1970 from Yale, where he switched his major to political science from astrophysics, and a law degree from Harvard, he joined the Texas-based staff of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1974. He later directed the organization’s voting rights program and was its president and general counsel from 1982 to 1985.
“Joaquin’s contributions to voting rights and to Latino civil rights have had a profound and incalculable impact, to the benefit of every person living in the United States,” Thomas A. Saenz, the defense fund’s current president, said in a statement.
With Avila representing the fund, a federal district court in Texas accepted his reasoning that school boards were “political jurisdictions” under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That meant that any changes in district boundaries and election procedures had to be reviewed in advance by the Justice Department.
Some of those requirements were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.
An amendment to the 1965 act for which he successfully lobbied in 1982 defined election practices as unfair if their effect could be proved to be discriminatory, regardless of their intent.
And his work in helping to draft California’s 2001 Voting Rights Act, the only such state legislation at the time, led to a provision requiring that a plaintiff’s legal fees be reimbursed by a government if it loses or settles a case. That provision proved profitable personally when he successfully represented clients in voting rights cases.
Just because he had helped draft the state law, he told The Associated Press in 2009, “I don’t think that should preclude me from enforcement.”
In 1996, Avila was awarded a fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the so-called genius grant. An accompanying citation hailed his “vision of voting rights advocacy that is premised on the conviction that government functions best if it is reflective and representative of the range of its constituents.”
Avila was among a group of civil rights lawyers who in 1990 successfully challenged a reapportionment plan that left the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors without a member of Hispanic heritage, even though Hispanics had accounted for more than 27 percent of the county’s population by 1980.
In ordering the board to draw a Hispanic majority district, a federal judge in Los Angeles concluded in 1991 that the supervisors “appear to have acted primarily on the political instinct of self-preservation,” knowing that “the likely result of their actions” would be “the continued fragmentation of the Hispanic core and the dilution of Hispanic voting strength.”
Avila joined the University of Seattle Law School faculty in 2005. He was executive director of the Voting Rights Initiative at the school’s Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality from 2009 and continued in that post after he was disabled by a stroke in 2011. The initiative’s national focus ended after he retired several years later.
In addition to his son Joaquin, he is survived by his wife, the former Sally Cabaruvias; another son, Salvador; a daughter, Angelique Avila; a brother, Jaime; and four grandchildren.
Avila devoted his career to challenging gerrymandered districts and at-large voting, which diffused the potential political power of geographically concentrated minority groups.
“Political power is never given away; you have to take it,” he told The Monterey County Weekly in 2015. “So that’s what I do.”