Garza, Reynaldo Guerra (1915–2004)

By: Norman Rozeff

Type: Biography

Published: June 26, 2007

Updated: November 6, 2019

Reynaldo Guerra Garza, jurist, was born in Brownsville, Texas, July 7, 1915, the child of Ygnacio and Zoila Garza, emigrants from Mexico. One of eight children, he attended local public schools in Brownsville, was graduated from Brownsville Junior College in 1935, received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1937, and a degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1939. He then was in the private practice of law in Brownsville from 1939 until 1942 at which time he served in the military in World War II from 1942 until 1945 as a gunnery instructor in the United States Army Air Corps. Upon completion of his service he returned to Brownsville and practiced law from 1945 until 1961. President John F. Kennedy nominated Reynaldo Garza to the United States District Court, Southern District of Texas, in March 1961. Upon confirmation he became the nation's first Mexican American federal district judge and later served as chief judge of the court from 1974 until 1979. In December 1976 President Jimmy Carter "asked him to serve as the nation's Attorney General, but he declined because he didn't want to leave his beloved South Texas and his service to the federal bench." President Jimmy Carter nominated Judge Garza to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and Judge Garza was confirmed by the United States Senate in July 1979. He assumed senior status in the court in 1982. In April 1997 he was also appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist as chief of the Temporary Emergency Court of Appeals that convened in Denver. The appointment to lead this prestigious court demonstrated the extraordinary respect in which he was held within the federal court system. He presided over many significant cases, his most celebrated civil rights decision being the 1972 Medrano v. Allee case, which struck down laws used by the Texas Rangers to break up United Farm Workers strikes. All told he sat on the bench for more than forty-three years.

This highly respected community leader was also the first Mexican American elected to the Brownsville School Board, worked with the League of United Latin American Citizens to improve the civil rights of Mexican Americans in Texas, and was recognized for his many accomplishments by having the Reynaldo G. Garza Elementary School in Brownsville named in his honor in 1977. A devout Catholic, he was the recipient of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal from Pope Pius XII and in 1954 became a decorated Knight of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great. He received an honorary doctor of laws degree from St. Edwards University in Austin in 1955. In 1989 Judge Garza was honored by the University of Texas with a Distinguished Alumnus Award. He was a lifelong Democrat.

At age eighty-nine, he died of pneumonia on September 14, 2004, leaving behind his wife of sixty-one years, Bertha Champion Garza, five children, twelve grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

On June 29, 2005, President George W. Bush signed a bill designating the United States Courthouse and Federal Building constructed in 2001 at Sixth and Harrison Streets, Brownsville as the Reynaldo G. Garza and Filemon B. Vela United States Courthouse.

Louise Ann Fisch, All Rise--Reynaldo G. Garza, the First Mexican American Federal Judge (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1996). Texas State Senate Resolution No. 217 adopted February 22, 2005. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Brownsville Herald, June 20, 2005. United States House of Representatives Bill H.R. 483, April 13, 2005, Reynaldo G. Garza and Filemon B. Vela United States Courthouse.

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Judges
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Norman Rozeff, “Garza, Reynaldo Guerra,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 26, 2007
November 6, 2019

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: