- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

NEW YORK | Cesar Perales has fought his share of critics over the years - in legal battles for minorities who were denied jobs, bilingual classes in schools and more Hispanic police officers.

But none of those efforts compares with the tempest his Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has stirred because of the dozen years that Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor served as one of its board members.

Conservatives have called the group’s stances on capital punishment and abortion rights, as well as its advocacy of affirmative action in worker discrimination cases, “extreme” and “shocking.” Some have suggested Judge Sotomayor’s longtime association with the group is an indication that she is biased and would be unable to render impartial decisions as a Supreme Court justice.

The criticism leading up to this week’s Senate hearings on Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation has stunned Mr. Perales, who calls it an attempt to derail her nomination by over-politicizing the work of his legal defense fund.

“You have a reputable group that has stood up for the civil rights of Latinos for 37 years,” said Mr. Perales, the group’s president. “To suddenly be accused of being something bad - and that anyone associated with it should not be allowed to serve on the Supreme Court - to me is shocking.”

Mr. Perales and two other attorneys founded the fund, now known as LatinoJustice PRLDEF, in a Manhattan office building in 1972. They modeled it after one of the most high-profile civil rights organizations in the country, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The group points to suits such as Aspira v. New York City Board of Education as among its biggest accomplishments, forcing city schools to implement bilingual education for non-English-speaking students.

Another suit against the city’s Police Department brought about an increase in the number of Hispanic officers. The group mounted a successful legal challenge in 1981 that postponed city elections over concerns about redistricting.

Judge Sotomayor held leadership roles on the legal defense fund’s board from 1980 to 1992, starting soon after she graduated from law school and began working, leaving it when she became a federal judge. Mr. Perales has described her role as helping with fundraising and setting policy, and said she was not directly involved with the group’s legal arguments and activities.

In that period, the group brought several lawsuits in which minority workers claimed discriminatory treatment that kept them from jobs or promotions.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, used the word “extreme” to describe the PRLDEF’s views on capital punishment and race.

“This is a group that has taken some very shocking positions with respect to terrorism,” Mr. Sessions said, citing the fund’s defense in 1990 of Puerto Rican nationalists who 36 years earlier had wounded five lawmakers during an attack on the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mr. Sessions’ Senate aides also raised concerns about the fund’s ties with the community activist group ACORN, an organization embroiled in voter registration disputes with Republicans.

Mr. Perales said his group and ACORN were associated in one lawsuit that dealt with low-income tenants, an area of interest for both organizations.

“We’re not ashamed of that. If we’re going to be involved in helping poor people, we’re obviously going to have contact” with other groups that work in that area, he said.

A coalition of 25 Hispanic organizations recently sent Mr. Sessions a letter expressing concern over PRLDEF’s portrayal. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg weighed in with a statement of support.

“While we have not always agreed on every issue, the group has made countless important contributions to New York City,” Mr. Bloomberg said last week.

Republican senators have questioned whether Judge Sotomayor’s work with PRLDEF might have influenced her decision to join two other judges in dismissing a discrimination suit by white New Haven, Conn., firefighters who claimed they were denied promotions because of their race.

The Supreme Court last month reversed that decision by Judge Sotomayor and two other appeals court judges.

The case bears similarities to a case PRLDEF brought on behalf of Hispanic New York City sanitation workers who sought to stop white employees from getting promotions, arguing that the promotion exams unfairly disadvantaged minorities. Judge Sotomayor chaired the board’s litigation committee at the time.

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