Miguel García, who's among the most accomplished civil-rights litigators from L.A.'s Chicano Power era, sold his law practice on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. a year ago and packed up 46 years' worth of legal mementos. He kept the cards he received from the clerk's office at the California Supreme Court granting him hearings in 1973, '74 and '75. He kept framed awards from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and district attorney Steve Cooley. He kept the brochure he had printed in 1971, recruiting Chicano law students to a first-of-its-kind association at Loyola Law School.
He says of his philosophy about the field of law: “There's a flexibility to the law, a part that is left for interpretation. … You have to be able to form your own opinion of what the law is, to read the opinions, to insert your own value system.”
One of the mementos, a black-and-white photo from 1978, is a study in contrast. Three white men in austere suits stand facing the camera, with García at the end. He is wearing a button-down shirt open at the collar, his thick mane of dark hair is combed back, and he's cupping a cocktail in one hand and grinning through a dark beard.
Four decades later, at age 74, García is a well-mannered, white-haired gentleman with reading spectacles. Somewhere in the intervening years, he has traded in the corduroy suits and leather boots for a cream-colored guayabera and two-toned suede moccasins. Like his style of dress, García's political passion has become more moderate. But he continues carrying out his life's work to break down barriers for Angelenos of Mexican descent.
In law school, García was one of two students with a Spanish surname in his class at Loyola. There were only 27 Mexican-American lawyers in all of L.A. County the year he graduated, he says.
“I favor underdogs. That's how I practice law.” —Miguel García
As a law student, García volunteered at a police malpractice center at First and Soto. He detected a pattern among clients showing outward signs of having suffered police brutality: They themselves were being charged with brutality, against the officers. García discussed it with other like-minded young Chicano lawyers: How do we get ahold of the personnel records of the officers?
In García's first full year of practice, he took on the case of César Echeverría, who was severely beaten by an L.A. sheriff's deputy; the attacking deputy claimed self-defense and charged Echeverría for excessive force.
García's strategy was to get the names of other people beaten up by the same sheriff — “people that didn't even know César Echeverría; otherwise César Echeverría would be all alone.” Other colleagues had tried and failed to access a deputy's personnel file. García tweaked the wording on an earlier motion that was rejected, and the judge authorized a subpoena. But instead of handing over the records, Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess appealed the decision. The California Supreme Court heard the case in 1973, and in a landmark ruling decided in favor of García.
“Once [the] Pitchess [case] was law, defense attorneys all over California were filing motions,” he says. “LAPD paid overtime to shred 25 years' worth of personnel records. They weighed over 2 tons. Over one million pages they destroyed in three days.”
Word of García's professional success reached César Chávez, leader of the United Farm Workers, who at the time was trying to establish a union in Bakersfield. Sheriff's deputies were frustrating the union effort, targeting pro-union workers for arrest and beatings. García says the case he eventually took arose from more than 100 alleged instances of police brutality and unlawful prosecution by the sheriffs and district attorneys of Kern County.
The pace and intensity of police excessive-force cases eventually took their toll. “So many people needed help,” García says. “I was getting off balance.” He went on hiatus for the latter half of the 1970s. When he came back to work, he returned to police use-of-force cases for a period in the 1990s.
These days the focus of García's legal activity has shifted to the legislative branch. He is president of the Whittier Voters Coalition, a group formed to increase Latino representation at the city level.
Under the old way of doing things in Whittier, the minority of white voters in town had an outsized influence on determining the outcome of every council race. All voters chose everyone on the city council, and even though Latinos account for about 65 percent of voters, Latino candidates lost every year, García says.
Using the threat of a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act, García's group successfully pressured Whittier officials in 2014 to change the city charter to district elections, in which geographically divided groups of voters each elect their own representative.
“I favor underdogs,” he says. “That's how I practice law.”