LOS ANGELES - Joaquin G. Avila, a Los Angeles attorney who ensures the polls are open to minority voters, was selected to receive the 2001 Loren Miller Legal Services Award, the highest honor bestowed by the State Bar of California.
Created in 1977 to commemorate the bar's 50th anniversary, the annual Loren Miller award is given to an attorney who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to legal services and who advocates for the disenfranchised.
The award will be presented by California Chief Justice Ronald George at a Sept. 7 reception during the State Bar's Annual Meeting in Anaheim. In recognition of the thousands of pro bono hours donated by the state's attorneys every year, Gov. Gray Davis has declared Sept. 3-9 "California Pro Bono Week."
Avila, 53, is a voter-rights specialist who works to secure access for Latino voters and is currently promoting redistricting based on 2000 U.S. Census data. He began working closely with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) shortly after he was admitted to the bar in late 1973.
He testified before the U.S. Congress in the mid-1970s in support of the Voter Rights Act, telling members of the discrimination and harassment Latino groups in Texas endured when they staged voter registration drives. He is currently assisting in Ruiz v. Santa Maria, a challenge to the Santa Maria City Council's at-large electoral system. No Latino had ever been elected under the at-large system, even though the ethnic group represents 45 percent of the city's population. MALDEF is awaiting a decision in the case.
"A lot of Latinos have been politically empowered because of the work that Joaquin has done," said Vibiana Andrade, MALDEF's vice president for public policy. "I think the Latino community is lucky to have Joaquin working on our behalf."
Avila is in private practice in Los Angeles. He litigates complex voting rights cases at all levels of the federal courts and conducts legislative and administrative advocacy at the state and federal level.
He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship last year in recognition of his work. Previously Avila served as President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Founded in 1927 by the legislature, the State Bar is an administrative arm of the California Supreme Court, serving the public and seeking to improve the justice system for more than 70 years. All lawyers practicing in California must be members of the State Bar. In July, membership reached 176,456 - making it the largest state bar in the nation.