Nineteen Years of Service and Growth
The Maryland Hispanic Bar Association emerged from an idea Puerto Rican-American attorney Mayda Colón Tsaknis had – even before the 1990 US Census estimated that 350,000 residents in Maryland and about ten percent of the nation’s population were Hispanic, and that by 2005 their ranks would swell to become the largest minority in America. “I had been thinking about starting the association for a few years but the number of Hispanic lawyers in Maryland was minimal. The problems, however, for our Hispanic population continued to grow and I felt it was necessary to, basically, take the bull by the horn and go with it,” Mayda explains.
She selected names in The Client’s Security Trust Fund list of attorneys that sounded Hispanic and wrote to them detailing her idea. A few answered to let her know whether or not they were of Hispanic descent and if they wanted to participate in forming a bar association, but the majority did not respond. That didn’t stop Mayda. She obtained the by-laws of the National and the District of Columbia Hispanic Bar associations and proceeded to form the corporation. Afterwards, she personally called those lawyers she knew were Hispanic and invited them to her law office in Montgomery County. That’s how the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association started, with Mayda as its first President (1993-1994).
Believing this was an important time for Hispanic attorneys to be actively involved in the state’s judicial system, Mayda focused on the lack of qualified interpreters in the courts and, despite her busy schedule as member of various commissions, she was determined to effect some changes. Although she gave credit for the work accomplished to the Association, in those early days the budding non-profit enterprise was pretty much a one-woman-act.
In the beginning, it was basically Mayda, her associate Robert Lorenzo, and her secretary. “I had quite a few contacts, including the Governor, and as a result our association gained a very good reputation and support. We worked with the first few presidents helping to guide the association and giving the help needed, if requested. For some years we also had a Christmas party in my office and invited all the judges from the county as well as other Hispanic leaders. It was fun and we were growing. Most of all, we had a great sense of pride in our heritage as well as in our accomplishments,” she adds.
In those early years, the Association and its fifty or so members became involved in a few hefty issues that affected the Hispanic community, including opposition to an “English only” bill – a matter that continues to resurface from time to time. Without quality control standards in place to ensure reliable, trained, and certified interpreters and with interest groups threatening to push for English as the nation’s ‘official’ language, thousands of immigrants in Maryland faced the daunting task of navigating a court system about which they knew little and understood even less. Neil Fagan remembers that Mayda and Marielsa Bernard (MHBA president, 1994-1995) – one of the Latino attorneys who had been part of that first group and who would become the second Latina judge in the state – testified in Annapolis about the need for Spanish and other language interpreters, and for training and certification of their qualifications. “I was part of a committee that prepared a written opposition to the English-only bill and attended meetings to coordinate with other Hispanic organizations,” Neil adds.
Judge Bernard noted: “I truly believe that as a result of the MHBA advocating for change we have a much better system of court interpreters than we did when I first started practicing, when I often had to rely on my client’s friend or family member to translate or I would be asked by a judge while I was waiting for my case to be called to step in to another case and translate!”
From 1994 through 1996, the MHBA set out to educate the Hispanic community through a series of Pro Bono Legal and Social Services Fairs held at various churches with large Spanish-speaking populations, including St. Camillus and St. Martin’s in Montgomery County. For this work, during Judge Bernard’s tenure as president, the MHBA received the People’s Pro Bono Award from the People’s Pro Bono Action Center, Inc. and the MSBA Special Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services and it was recognized for the Pro Bono law fair the Association held on Maryland Law Day with a Best Service to the Public Project Award from the Maryland State Bar Association Local and Specialty Bar Liaison Committee. Among those providing pro bono services were Fagan and long-time supporter and MHBA member, Michael Kabik.
The Montgomery County pro bono events saw 300 or more people each. This was, according to Judge Bernard, probably because they were held following the Spanish language Mass. “There were balloons for the kids and many different community organizations and government agencies participated, giving out information about the services they could provide. We also had tables set up for various areas of the law, such as criminal, traffic, family relations, as well as immigration. I ensured that the agency or community organization representatives were all bilingual and that no one would be charged for information, and we had a protocol which did not allow attorneys to actively solicit clients as a result of their participation in the pro bono legal fair. CASA followed our lead in then starting its own fairs and the MHBA, through Neil, has worked on these as well,” the Judge recalls.
In April 1996, Judge Bernard initiated, planned and implemented an Open House of the Montgomery County District Court in Rockville, as a joint effort of the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association and the Hispanic/Latino Lawyers Special Committee of the MSBA.
Mayda notes proudly: “After the District Court Open House, we also sponsored a Circuit Court Open House. It was my goal, as it has always been, to be inclusive of other minorities. So, in this case, I invited the Korean leaders and community to join our Association. We had Spanish-speaking as well as Korean-speaking interpreters, and signs in both languages. The heart of the event were the Mock trials we held in the areas of domestic violence, criminal law and traffic law. We involved the Police Department, with the police chief providing officers who gave demonstrations and acted as ‘witnesses.’ The sheriff’s office also provided, at no cost, sheriffs who gave tours of the courthouse. We had refreshments and cupcakes and balloons. This Circuit Court House event with the Korean Bar was truly a success because we had the cooperation of individuals like Judges Weinstein, Harrington, and other judges who presided over the mock trials, and the Prosecutors who took part in the criminal and traffic mock trials. Brian Kim, who is a District Court Judge in Montgomery County, was very helpful as well. They were all marvelous and their contributions were of great benefit for the Hispanic and Korean communities.”
The MHBA also held some events with the Franklyn Bourne Bar Association and organized legal fairs in Anne Arundel and Baltimore City.
In addition to taking on legal issues affecting the Hispanic community and educating Latinos on their legal rights and responsibilities, in keeping with its mission, the MHBA advocated for the appointment of highly qualified Hispanics to the bench in the State of Maryland. Through these efforts, Governor Parris Glendenning appointed two of MHBA’s shining stars as the first Hispanic judges in the state: the Honorable Audrey J.S. Carrion in Baltimore City, in 1996, and the Honorable Marielsa Bernard in Montgomery County, in 1998.
“In Baltimore City in the late 90’s we noticed a tremendous increase in the number of Latinos moving into the East side. The original home for the Centro de la Comunidad was then located far away from Eastern Avenue. Our Bar sponsored a community fair at the Centro. I was honored to chair this effort. We had members of our Bar present as well as representatives of the Mayor’s Office and the local health department. Although the turnout was not as impressive as in Montgomery County, we made ourselves known to the community and the leadership of the City,” says Judge Carrion.
According to Judge Carrion, the MHBA coordinated with the Hispanic Apostolate to assist them, together with the Mayor’s Committee on Hispanic Affairs and the East Baltimore Latino Organization then headed by the late Jose Ruiz, with tutoring and health awareness programs.
“After my appointment to the District Court, in collaboration with EBLO and the Mayor’s Office, the MHBA sponsored an extremely successful open house at the courthouse. The City agreed to provide transportation on that Saturday afternoon to the families that congregated at the EBLO location on the East side of the City. We had at least 100 members of the community present – judges, health officials, housing representatives and members of our Bar. I presided over a mock domestic violence trial with a volunteer interpreter and we had members of the House of Ruth present. We also gave the children a tour of the courthouse and I answered their questions that mostly centered on how to become a lawyer and a judge,” Judge Carrion adds.
Both Judge Bernard and Judge Carrion emphasize that one of the MHBA’s most significant contributions has been the input the Association made with respect to the eventual approval of the interpreter Rule by the Court of Appeals. “As chair of the judiciary’s committee on interpretation and translation, I am very much in agreement with Judge Bernard that but for efforts of our Bar in conjunction and in collaboration with the Public Justice Center, Ricardo Flores, in particular, this would not be a reality,” says Judge Carrion.
The MHBA also sponsored changes regarding the voir dire Rule concerning pleas, which now calls for all to be advised of the consequences a plea can have on an individual’s legal status in this country. “The Association was instrumental in having the immigration consequences voir dire question added to the questions posed to a criminal defendant,” says Judge Bernard.
Richard Douglas, Chair of the MHBA Legislative Committee in 1998, provided assistance with the immigration consequences issue, helping Linda Estrada (MHBA president, 1997-1998) to present the Association’s position to the Rules Committee in April, that year
In 2003 and 2004, Patricia Chiriboga-Roby, as chair of the MHBA legislative committee advocated to have a new law enacted to discourage the unlawful practice of law by some notary publics. Unlike in the United States, where notary publics serve very limited functions, in many Latin-American countries “Notarios” perform many of the same duties as lawyers. Before the enactment of this extremely important legislation spearheaded by the MHBA, in many instances, notaries in the United States would prey on the immigrant population whom they knew were without recourse, holding themselves out to the Latinos as having the same powers as “Notarios” in their native countries and charging exorbitant fees to perform functions which they could not legally perform in America. The bill proposed by the MHBA gave the victims of these crimes an avenue for compensation.
Under Mariana Cordier (MHBA president, 2004-2005), in a collaborative effort with the Public Justice Center, Inc., CASA de Maryland, Hispanic Apostolate Immigration Legal Services, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), and the Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA), the Association championed the passing of The Maryland Immigration Consultant Act (MICA), which was the subject of bills in the Maryland House and Senate and was adopted almost unanimously by the Maryland State legislature on April 11, 2005. Governor Robert Ehrlich signed MICA into law on May 26, 2005, and it went into effect on October 1, 2005.
The Act provided some relief to those immigrants whose immigration cases had been irreparably harmed by providers of fraudulent immigration services and/or through the unauthorized practice of law by consultants. MICA allowed the victimized immigrants and their families to recover up to three times the amount they were illegally charged by the consultants. This law also included recovery of attorney fees, up to $2000 or one-third of the amount awarded, whichever is greater, so victims could have access to legal representation.
During the summer of 2007, the MHBA, represented by Bettina Guevara, Sylvia Ontaneda-Bernales and Abraham F. Carpio assisted the Hispanic Business Association of Baltimore City and others in the local Latino business community, with the analysis of and related advocacy against the “Spanish Town” Bill. The bill aimed to “innocuously” name the Fells Point section wherein are located many Latino-owned businesses as “Spanish Town”; however, it also placed a number of onerous zoning limitations on that part of Fells Point – limitations that were not otherwise imposed on nearby neighborhoods with fewer or no ethnic minorities. Ultimately, the MHBA and the local Hispanic community agreed with Councilmember Jim Kraft that the bill should not move forward, thus bringing the issue to a conclusion.
In May 2008, MHBA members Ontaneda-Bernales and Chiriboga-Roby participated in a Baltimore City Legal Fair organized by the newly-formed Maryland Immigration Rights Coalition (MIRC). MHBA was also present at MIRC’s 2009 Legal Fair held in Silver Spring, Maryland. Pro bono attorneys provided more than 200 combined consultations at these fairs.
More recently, in 2009, the MHBA joined the Maryland New Americans Partnership (MNAP), composed of diverse non-profits, whose work is to support eligible immigrants in their efforts to become U.S. citizens and active members of their communities post-naturalization. As a MNAP member, the Association co-signed a letter addressed to then President-Elect Obama requesting that his administration make immigration reform a priority.
In keeping with its advocacy mission, in 2009 the MHBA also joined with other protectors of immigrant’s rights to discourage new police procedures that could lead to racial profiling. The testimony before the Maryland Legislature of attorney Carpio, chair of the Association’s legislative committee and co-chair of the judicial nominations committee, successfully aided in defeating four bills that would have detrimentally affected the rights of undocumented, and predominantly Hispanic, residents in Maryland in the areas of criminal and immigration law. Also appearing before that legislative body, on behalf of the MHBA as Immigration Committee Community Liaison, Chiriboga-Roby testified in support of SB41 to allow the opportunity for students who are Maryland residents to pay affordable in-state college tuition, regardless of immigration status. In addition, she later testified and entered into the record her opposition to SB385 because it would limit eligibility for Senatorial and Delegate scholarship programs to citizens and lawful permanent residents, and thus arbitrarily exclude immigrants who are in lawful immigration status or who have permission from the Department of Homeland Security to live and work in the United States. She further testified in favor of ensuring that all drivers in the state be issued licenses and not permit the MVA to engage in determining immigration status (the ultimate goal was to increase safety for all motorists and to protect individuals with valid immigration status from being improperly denied drivers’ licenses).
The Association also joined several civil rights organizations in opposition to a Frederick County Board’s initiative requiring that the public schools in the County determine how many children in their system were undocumented immigrants. The Maryland Board of Education ruled that Frederick County shall NOT require children to provide proof that they are lawfully present in the United States because “the impact of illegal immigrant students on the school system’s budget (whether large or small) is not a valid public purpose under the ruling of Plyer v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), which held that the United States Constitution prohibits the State or local government from denying immigrant children the benefit of a public education.” Setting precedent in this fashion, the MHBA continues in its tireless efforts to combat discrimination.
For a number of years after she was appointed to the Circuit Court, Judge Carrion participated in a series of receptions the MHBA sponsored for Latino law students in Baltimore City. The purpose of the receptions was to introduce law students from the two local law schools to each other, to the Association and to judges. “It was through those receptions that I was introduced to many of the new leaders of our Bar. They were successful and I hope that we can sponsor them again. I am certainly willing to assist,” the Judge says.
These receptions were the precursors to the MHBA Mentorship Program initiated by Bettina Guevara (MHBA president, 2007-2008) when she was president elect and continued during her tenure as president. Bettina also advocated for the appointment of Hispanics in a majority of Governor-appointed judicial commissions in the state. However, according to Bettina, her greatest legacy was “to bring new blood to the Association.”
During the last decade, the MHBA has substantially expanded its membership. With this growth, the Association has benefited by renewed energy, ideas, and enthusiasm. One recent development has been an effort to partner with other minority bar associations across the state in various ways. To that end, the MHBA has co-sponsored several legal networking events.
By continuing to serve our membership with important networking opportunities, the MHBA stays relevant to its membership as the Hispanic legal population in Maryland grows.
This historical retrospective speaks of just a few of the many projects that the MHBA has been involved in and implemented as a bar organization. With the steadfast commitment and participation of its membership, The Maryland Hispanic Bar Association will continue to fulfill its mission and purpose – to remain ever vigilant regarding the legal rights of minorities, to advocate for the nomination of qualified Latino attorneys to the bench, and to advance the profession through service to the community.
Compiled by Sylvia Ontaneda-Bernales, Esq.
Contributors: Mayda Colón Tsaknis, Esq., Judge Audrey Carrion, Judge Marielsa Bernard, Judge Audrey Creighton, Mariana Cordier, Esq., Patricia-Chiriboga-Roby, Esq.; Neil Fagan, Esq., Linda Estrada, Esq., Abraham F. Carpio, Esq., Bettina Guevara, Esq. and Joseph L. Morales, Esq.