Legal Precedent

As The first Hispanic president of the American Bar Association, Steve Zack hopes to leave his mark

By Siobhan Morrissey


Steve Zack recalls the night that put him on the path to becoming one of the nation’s most prominent attorneys, leading to his induction in August as the first Hispanic president of the American Bar Association since its inception in 1878.


Zack, who is Cuban on his mother’s side, was living in Havana with his mother, sister and brother when Fidel Castro seized the family’s leather factory in 1961. They attempted to flee, but were detained at the airport gate. Even though his mother was a naturalized U.S. citizen and he and his siblings, as well as his father, were all U.S. citizens by birth, they were treated as if they had no legal rights, Zack recalls.


“You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. It’s something that stays with you forever... That obviously affected my life, and I think subconsciously it’s probably why I’m a lawyer today‚” he says. “I never wanted to appear helpless or not know my rights again.” After that, he says, “I never wanted to be anything but a lawyer.”


Today, Zack is reaching out to Hispanics in hopes of ensuring the protection of their rights in the United States. After being sworn in as president of the 400,000-member ABA, Zack outlined among his initiatives the creation of a Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights to identify barriers that hinder Hispanics in the legal system and society as a whole. The goal, he says, is “making sure Hispanics are treated with equality in this country and with dignity, and that the court system responds to the needs of Hispanics appropriately.”


Early in his career, Zack says he witnessed a close friend insulted by a judge in Miami who didn’t like his accent. “The judge said, ‘Get out of here until you can speak English.’ ” That humiliating incident prompted Zack to join the Cuban American Bar Association. At the time there were only a dozen or so members, but now there are thousands.


Roland Sanchez-Medina Jr., a Miami attorney and past president of CABA, says that kind of prejudice doesn’t exist anymore in Miami, which is predominantly Hispanic. However, he recalls a recent incident in Jacksonville, where his law partner and a client, both of whom happen to be named Pedro, experienced an ongoing reference to their ethnicity by opposing counsel. “The attorney kept referring to them as ‘The Pedros,’” Sanchez-Medina says. “That wouldn’t have happened if their names were Steve. You wouldn’t have heard, ‘The Steves.’ ”


Unfortunately, even with raised awareness about racism, Hispanics still encounter problems in the legal system, he says. “To be able to say that Hispanics do not face any more racism in the court system is a statement that I would love to be able to make,” Sanchez-Medina says. “It would be inaccurate; it would certainly be untruthful for me to make that statement.”


According to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics in particular harbor a distrust of the legal system. Sanchez-Medina says that stems from a belief that their concerns go unheard. “I think that many Hispanics don’t feel they are getting their fair share in the court system and they need more of a voice,” he says, adding that Zack’s election as ABA presidency is progress long overdue. “Frankly we’ve never had someone like Steve Zack. It’s 2010, and he’s the first Hispanic president of the American Bar Association. In terms of zenith points, we’ve had female presidents of the ABA; we’ve had African American presidents of the ABA. 2010 is the first [Hispanic] one. It’s alarming it took that long.”


Asked why it took so long, Zack answers first with a question. ”Why did it take 200 years to get a Hispanic Supreme Court justice?” Part of the reason is that only 3 percent of U.S. lawyers are Hispanic, he says, so the pool of potential candidates is limited to roughly 30,000 lawyers. He sees a three-fold solution: getting more Hispanics to go to law school, increasing the number of Hispanic law professors, and increasing the number Hispanic judges.


He also sees the increased presence of Hispanics in the legal system as inevitable. “Do you realize that by the year 2050, one out of every three Americans will have some kind of Hispanic origin in America?”


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Lupe M Ahu
2010-11-23 05:48:01

This little note is for mr. Steve Zack My brother, Mr Carlos Marin, he was injured at work , and his case still open till this day,he need help with his case please help him,he feels that his case is been manupulated, with his lawyer,he got electrocuted while working, he lives in Calexico Ca 92231

Lupe Ahu
2010-11-28 20:31:22

Dear Mr Steve Zack. My brother got insured at work he got elecrocuted, he lost portion of his foot,and his body its like a puzzle from all the surgerys he went thru. His been with this case for 11 years 1/2 and he feels that his Laweyer, its been manupulating his case ,they want to take his medical away, and that's what his fighting for. Please help him he found a magazine in the gas station and he got happy, becuse of what you do, to help those in need. his name is Carlos Marin he lives in Calexico California 92231 He would like to talk to you, and give him some advise about his case please, and thank you very much. Lupe Ahu