BY STEVEN STRICKLAND — Professor Louis Rulli’s law review article, On the Road to Civil Gideon, asks what method civil rights advocates should use to establish a right to counsel in certain civil proceedings. The “Civil Gideon” campaign for a civil right to counsel draws its name from Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark civil rights case that held that a right to counsel in criminal proceedings required states to appoint attorneys to those who could not afford. Rulli states that despite several “court and legislative initiatives in states and localities,” advocates have not been able to achieve much success. He lists a number of possible advocacy alternatives to implement, including state court lawsuits, state legislature lobbying, local legislature lobbying, public education campaigns, and bar-sponsored empirical studies. Rulli’s question of how best to organize a large-scale civil rights campaign is an especially pressing issue for nascent civil rights campaigns like the current movement in Orlando for Latino civil rights.
Although more and more Latinos, mostly Puerto Ricans, have moved into the Orlando metro area, there has not been a comparable growth in Latino political representation. Advocacy groups have been focusing on the fact that there are no Puerto Rican congressmen from the Orlando metro area, and no Puerto Rican women elected to national or state-level office. Despite the large and growing Puerto Rican population in the Orlando area, the only high-profile Puerto Rican political figure from the area is State Senator Darren Soto.
Like the failure to enact a Civil Gideon, the lack of Latino and especially Latina political representation in the Orlando area will require the implementation of multiple advocacy efforts to break the current deadlock. Due to the multitude and complexity of factors causing the problem, advocates in Orlando should implement a combination of the type of efforts Rulli suggested. To further their cause, advocates should attempt to use an all-of-the-above strategy, including lawsuits, lobbying at all governmental levels, public education campaigns, and public policy studies. Advocates should also begin to build coalitions involving interested businesses, community-based nonprofits, and labor unions in the area. Lastly, Latino rights advocates should recruit organizations that can help prospective political candidates be successful, such as Emerge America, which has helped prospective female political candidates in many different states.
Currently, the leading organization promoting this advocacy effort is Latino Justice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (“PRLDEF”), which has focused their efforts on voting rights lawsuits in federal court and on lobbying the Florida state legislature. This past May, Latino Justice PRLDEF filed a lawsuit claiming Orange County’s new County Commission redistricting map was discriminatory and violated the civil rights of Latinos. The organization argued that the redistricting map diluted the Latino community’s voting strength. Unfortunately, a federal court judge dismissed the lawsuit. In addition, Latino Justice PRLDEF also lobbied the governor and state legislature this year to vote on the Florida Voting Rights Act (SB 1246) and the Florida Right to Vote Act (SB 1132). Ultimately, both these efforts died in the Ethics and Elections Committee stage.
Although Latino civil rights advocacy has not been completely successful in Orlando, efforts have only just begun and the impressive level of support and participation by advocates thus far should make everyone involved hopeful. The establishment of a permanent Latino Justice PRLDEF office in Orlando and the candidacy of Viviana Janer, a Puerto Rican woman, for the Osceola County Commission are also noteworthy and encouraging developments for this issue. However, Election Day is just the beginning for such a large-scale civil rights campaign. A broad coalition of both organizations and individuals such as Latino Justice PRLDEF, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”), Latinos United for Equal Representation, State Senator Darren Soto, State Representative Victor Torres, among others, should continue to expand their efforts to increase Latino political power and representation in the Orlando metro area.