Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Second Chance: Florida’s 1973 – 1976 Cuban Lawyer Admission Project

By Harley Herman

As you entered your office this morning, the one document you probably did not look at was your license to practice law.  The idea that one day our system of law could end and we would lose our careers never enters our minds.  This happened to Cuban lawyers when they fled Cuba after Fidel Castro’s revolution.  They came to our shores, knowing that because their law schools taught the Civil Law of Cuba, not the American Bar Association Common Law courses, they were not eligible to join The Florida Bar. 

Forty years ago, on July 31, 1973, a Florida Supreme Court Order opened a door that brought the skills of these lawyers to Tampa and other Florida cities.  The court order authorized a special program of study as a prerequisite to taking the Bar exam.  The University of Florida’s law school created and taught a 21-month weekend course of study to acquaint Cuban lawyers with our Common Law system and its application to Florida law. 

Most Floridians were unaware of the unmet legal needs of Cuban refugees who fled to Florida and the wealth of legal talent we received during the exile.  Per the court’s findings, by 1973 only 40 Florida lawyers spoke Spanish, but the refugee population of Florida exceeded 300,000.  The number of Cuban lawyers and judges in Florida was so great that many retained the name and operations of the Havana Bar Association.

The 1973 order was sought after other alternatives proved inadequate.  Hillsborough County Bar Association President Reece Smith asked the Honorable E. J. Salcines to introduce Cuban lawyers to Tampa law firms. Without the ability to practice law, few options were available.  Carlton Fields employed Felipe Ramon Pacheco.  He established and organized the firm’s library and served as a translator for the firm.  His return to practice on December 18, 1975, became possible only when the court authorized the special law school program for Cuban lawyers.

Similarly, former Cuban Judge Adalberto Tosca worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital until then-State Attorney E. J. Salcines hired Tosca to interview and translate affidavits for criminal proceedings. He had left Cuba with $5 after he resigned his Cuban judgeship because the Cuban government informed him of the sentence of the people who appeared before him, prior to the defendants’ trials.  After the 1973 order, he became a Tampa lawyer on October 23, 1975.

The Tampa students held review sessions each week at the offices of Tampa attorney Luis Dial, Jr.     Upon completion of the program, the experienced former lawyers, judges, and law professors from Cuba joined young law students in taking the Miami Bar exam.  Pacheco, Tosca and others returned to join and enrich our legal community. 

Their struggle 40 years ago and dedication to our profession’s aspirations will soon be appropriately recognized. In upcoming ceremonies proposed for the University of Florida, the HCBA Diversity Committee, and the Tampa Bay Hispanic Bar Association, the few surviving Hillsborough Cuban lawyers who rejoined our profession and the HCBA members who assisted them will be recognized.