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Remembering Prof. Miguel Méndez Stanford Lawyer Magazine

By Robert García ’74, JD ‘78

Civil rights, health equity, and conservation attorneys and advocates were gathered at the GreenLatinos National Summit in Asilomar State Park when I received the word Miguel Méndez had died peacefully in his sleep at home with his family. Miguel, BA ’65, JD ’68 George Washington University, was a civil rights leader and emeritus law professor at Stanford and UC Davis. I left the meeting hall and walked down to the beach on the sand along Monterey Bay. Alone under the stars I reflected on what Miguel had done for students, lawyers, and the community for generations.

Miguel was an influential legal scholar who targeted his work for practicing attorneys and litigators. He wrote three evidence books and many law review articles. He represented unpopular people in unpopular causes as an attorney with the Monterey County Public Defender’s Office, California Rural Legal Assistance, and MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund). He was the first tenured Latino law professor at Stanford or any major law school in the nation. He was inducted into the American Law Institute with other leading scholars, judges, and lawyers. He was a profoundly spiritual man, active in his church. You would not learn this from Miguel, who did not talk much about himself.

Students and colleagues remember Miguel’s impact on them as a teacher and human being. Miguel was special because he made us feel special.

Miguel started teaching at Stanford in 1977. I did not have Miguel for a class because, as a third year student, I had already studied the subjects he taught: evidence, criminal law, and clinical courses. Miguel nevertheless remained my closest personal tie to Stanford for four decades. He kept a framed photo in his office of Latino students in the Class of 1978, the first that graduated after he joined the faculty. When he saw my smile when I visited a few years later, he gave me a copy, which I treasure.

Latino law students in Miguel’s first year at Stanford Law School. L-R Joe Acosta, Robert García, James Castro, Carlos Castro, Ellen Maldonado, Luis Gutierrez, Tina Fernandez from the SLS Class of 1978.

(Maria) Dante Brown and Michael R. Leslie, both JD’85 and married, remember: “Miguel, among the many wonderful professors at Stanford, was our safe haven as young first-year law students. He was equal parts criminal law wizard, evidence expert supreme, font of all practical legal wisdom, terror of the moot court, and gentle jokester who never let us take ourselves too seriously.” His year-long clinical course in evidence was “real battlefield training for the litigators we hoped to be. In truth,” they say, “Miguel was our lifelong mentor. We relied upon his cool head, sharp judgment, and advice as we made career decisions over the years.”

Not only did he attend their wedding, Miguel introduced them to Cruz Reynoso, his friend and former California Supreme Court Justice, who officiated at the ceremony. The couple agree, “Miguel was well aware of the historical importance of being Stanford Law School’s first Latino professor, and of his role as mentor to us Latino students. We miss him terribly.”

According to MALDEF’s Tom Saenz, “Miguel was an iconic inspiration to law students across many generations, including mine. He was also an ongoing supporter and frequent advisor of MALDEF, where he was employed early in his extraordinary career. His constant and deep support has been a great comfort throughout my time as MALDEF president.”

John Huerta met Miguel around 1970, when Miguel worked for MALDEF and John for CRLA. They both practiced criminal defense and public interest law. “Now,” says Huerta,” one must realize that we were the only Mexican Americans graduating from our respective law schools in 1968 (Miguel from George Washington and I from Berkeley), and there were only a handful of Latino, Latina, or female lawyers graduating from other law schools throughout the country.” Over the years, they kept in touch. “Miguel was a loving person,” says Huerta, “who cared deeply about improving the living and working conditions of low-income people in this country, especially the Spanish-speaking and rural poor. He didn’t know how to say ‘no’ when someone called upon him for help.”

Gerald Torres, Stanford BA’74, graduated from Yale Law School and teaches environmental and Native American law at Cornell Law School. Miguel worked with and was one of the leading Latino members of the law profession. “Miguel came from litigation and had the strategic sense that all good litigators have,” says Torres. “Miguel made pups like me feel welcomed into the academy, even as he was also quick to highlight the pressures and indignities often associated with being one of the first to desegregate important institutions.”

Like others, Torres treasures Miguel’s sense of humor, which could be wicked even though he was warm. He and Miguel and their wives, Frances Nash and Victoria Diaz, spent an idyllic semester at Vermont Law School while Miguel, Gerald, and Victoria, Stanford JD ’75, taught there. “He and Victoria were like Burns and Allen. Each gave as good as they got, sometimes causing Miguel to exclaim: ‘Don’t be like people say you are!’” According to Torres, Miguel was famous for his thrift: “One Christmas,” says Torres, “a group of Latino law professors conspired to collect all of the little soap bars from hotels we visited over the year and give them in a big box as a present for Miguel. We thought it was a great joke, but as always, the joke was on us. I think Miguel used all that soap over the next year.”

Miguel encouraged Tony Arnold, Stanford JD’90, to think about law school teaching and launched his academic career by inviting him to return as a teaching fellow in 1995. Arnold wrote the following to Miguel in 2015: “Because of your mentoring, I ended up in university teaching. I wanted to thank you for the profound influence you had. I was very unsure of my vocational direction when I was in law school. Being a modest-income Kansas boy from a public education background and the first in my family to go to college (and the only one to go to law school, even now), I felt lost. Your belief in me and your words of encouragement to consider academia made a huge difference.” Miguel’s impact had a ripple effect on Arnold’s students and clients. “I wouldn’t be doing any of what I have done most of my career – teaching, mentoring, public service, social justice – if it weren’t for Miguel,” says Arnold. Miguel is at the center of our bonds as a Stanford family, Arnold adds. “I’m overwhelmed with emotion – from sorrow that he’s not with us here on this earth anymore, to immense gratitude for his mentorship and impact on me, to reverence for all the good that he did.”

Prof. Lisa Ikemoto, who came to know Miguel when he retired from Stanford and joined UC Davis in 2009, says, “How lucky I was, and how lucky we all were at King Hall. Miguel brought his fully realized humanity to Davis.” She recalls “meals with Miguel and Cruz Reynoso recounting their paths through the civil rights movement from the 1950s to the present, without a trace of ego, bravado, or bitterness.”

When Miguel became sick in 2013, he wrote to a group of friends and kept us posted about his progress. While I appreciated hearing from him, I wondered why he shared his experience. I learned why when I was diagnosed in 2015. I immediately wrote to Miguel, scared and sad. He called me early the next day. He said, “Robert, how are you? Never mind, you don’t need to say anything. I know how you are. I’ve been through the physical and emotional roller coaster.” Miguel talked me through. I am healthy and happy to be here. Miguel wrote to us not about himself. He wrote to teach, to make the path easier for those who came after him. Victoria told me at the celebration of Miguel’s life, “Robert, Miguel kept a list of people he prayed for every day. You were on that list.” — Thank you, Miguel. I wish you were here now.

Miguel with his daughters and former students at his SLS retirement party in Los Angeles.

In 2015, Dante Brown, Michael Leslie, Rob Vogel, and Lou Lupin, all JD ’85, started the Miguel Méndez Scholarship Fund in recognition of Miguel’s contributions to public service and education. When they asked how Miguel would like scholarships allocated, he asked only that recipients be from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Miguel is survived by his two daughters, Arabela and Gabriela, and his friend and former wife, Victoria Díaz. The Méndez family asks that donations be made to Stanford Law School’s Miguel Méndez Scholarship Fund.

A version of this remembrance appears in print in Stanford Lawyer Magazine (Fall 2017).

Robert García, a civil rights and human rights advocate, is founding director and counsel of The City Project, a non-profit in Los Angeles, CA

A version of this remembrance appears in print in Stanford Lawyer Magazine (Fall 2017)

Prof. Miguel Méndez