Now in the third decade of the new century, persons of color continue to break barriers. Although Texas has the second highest Latinx population in the United States, prior to 2021, it did not have a Latinx judge organization like those found in California, New York, and Illinois. That barrier was broken on May 5, 2021, through the creation of Texas Latinx Judges, or TLJ. One of the first associations of its kind in Texas, TLJ is a nonpartisan, nonprofit association focused on empowering current and future Latinx judges. It fosters a pipeline for future Latinx judges with the goal of enhancing diversity, inclusion, and excellence in the judiciary so that equal justice is provided to all.
Another legal first in 2021, El Paso lawyer Sylvia Borunda Firth became the first Latina to become president of the State Bar of Texas. Borunda Firth’s experience as a former city attorney and her service in different leadership roles with the State Bar helped her garner support from lawyers statewide during the 2020 president-elect race. When elected, Borunda Firth stated, “It is an honor and a big responsibility to represent my culture and my gender … and bring more diversity to the State Bar.”
As State Bar president-elect, Firth created a 15-member Task Force on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to study and propose actions to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the administration of justice and the practice of law. Recommendations were made relating to providing pipeline programs and resources aimed at improving diversity, equity, and inclusion.
TLJ is also committed to shaping the future of equal justice in Texas by increasing the advancement and the number of Latinx judges in Texas. TLJ encourages lawyers to join TLJ and demystifies the processes of being elected or appointed to a judicial position. TLJ also hosts events for law students across the state. TLJ teaches students about the judiciary, shares distinct paths that individuals have taken to become jurists, and encourages students to consider the possibility that they too can be judges.
TLJ’s founding officers and board members are diverse jurists from across the state: Judge Lesley Briones (president and former Harris County judge of County Court at Law No. 4); Judge Victor Villarreal (president-elect and Webb County judge of County Court at Law II); Judge Maria Salas-Mendoza (secretary and judge of the 120th District Court in El Paso County); Chief Justice Dori Contreras (treasurer and justice of the 13th Court of Appeals); and board members Judge Antonia Arteaga, of Bexar County’s 57th District Court; Justice Gina Benavides, of the 13th Court of Appeals; and retired Judge Orlinda Naranjo, former judge of Travis County 419th District Court.
These legal firsts in 2021 will help shape justice in Texas for decades to come.
Judge Orlinda Naranjo retired after 24 years on the bench in Travis County. She presided over the 419th District Court for 12 years and County Court at Law #2 for 12 years, where she heard civil, criminal, and family law cases. During Naranjo’s tenure on the bench, she was appointed by the Texas Supreme Court to several statewide positions including the Texas Judicial Council, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, and the Texas Indigent Defense Task Force. She is a founding member and board member of Texas Latinx Judges.
Judge Victor Villarreal presides over Webb County Court at Law II, which was designated in 2019, under his administration, as a Judicial Center of Excellence by the Texas Judicial Council. In addition to hearing civil, criminal, probate, guardianship, mental health, family law, and juvenile cases, he is the administrative judge of the Webb County Courts at Law and president-elect of Texas Latinx Judges.