Justice Cruz Reynoso had a superpower. His profound knowledge of how equity should be advanced through the law was fortified by his limitless generosity in service to others and alloyed by unconditional love, compassion and respect for every other person on the planet.
For those without personal experience, that may sound like an overstatement, a romanticized remembrance. For the rest of us, that describes our experience with a man who is often inadequately characterized in the media as the first Latino and then recalled member of the California Supreme Court. Inadequate because he filled his life – before, during and after his time on the court – with constant forward motion.
Reynoso, who died last week at age 90, was a founding member of the California Forward Leadership Council. Reynoso was among a diverse collection of business, political and civic veterans who met for the first time in Los Angeles in early 2008.
Over dinner and under the gentle stewardship of bipartisan co-chairs Leon Panetta and Tom McKernan, each member of the newly assembled council articulated their views on effective governance. After attentively listening to the contributions of others, Reynoso declared with his usual authoritative advocacy “there is no political democracy without economic democracy.”
That statement authentically and accurately captured one of Reynoso’s personal and enduring truths, and was incorporated into California Forward’s vision statement.
While he was known as a champion of social justice and civil rights, Reynoso believed that equal access and opportunity to participate in the economy was a priority pathway. Free post-secondary education – especially community colleges – was to him among the minimum standards for a society committed to economic opportunity and inclusion.
His career before his time on the bench was defined by organizing, advocacy and teaching in law schools. After his time on the Third District Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, his career was defined by organizing, advocacy and teaching in law schools.
In conversation, he would draw equally from the law and his experiences – growing up in then semi-rural Orange County and working in the Imperial Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and in New Mexico. His home and office were filled with boxes of reports and documents that he distilled into simple stories of something gone wrong and a reasonable solution.
He was generous to the cause – most importantly with his time and energy. He routinely set aside his own projects to answer a call to investigate a specific incident, a public challenge, or a new opportunity. He embraced every chance to right a wrong or make the path straight for someone else – whether that was serving on a federal commission or reviewing a local allegation of police abuse.
That is a lesson from one man’s life, and a life lesson for the rest of us.
In every interaction, he demonstrated a passion for justice for all people without exception. He treated those around him with such collegiality that peers and staff alike would toggle between respectably calling him Justice Reynoso and affectionately calling him Cruz. He didn’t seem to have a preference, just as he did not limit his graciousness, courtesy or concern to those he knew. Having grown up in a farmworker family and rising to the pinnacle of his profession, he was innately respectful of others.
Reynoso particularly liked participating in the California Economic Summit – both a process and an event designed to organize and advocate for more inclusive and resilient prosperity. He would gently complain that he didn’t like being forced to choose between sessions discussing housing or workforce development or working landscapes.
At the 2016 Summit in Sacramento, Reynoso arrived late for the final plenary session. Raj Chetty, the then-Stanford now Harvard star, was midway through his detailed analysis for why upward mobility had declined in the United States and his prescription for restoring the dream.
Reynoso walked slowly from the back of the ballroom to an empty chair at a table right in front of the stage. As he settled in, Reynoso realized he was sitting down next to John Gamboa, the founding director of the Latino Issues Forum, the Greenlining Institute and California Community Builders.
They both jumped to their feet and embraced – two self-effacing, tireless and iconic warriors for an inclusive and equitable California. I wondered at the time if Chetty realized the historical contributions represented by the spontaneous joy of these two men in the shadow of his spotlight.