Law school pays tribute to Joaquin Avila at Latinx Community Awards

March 15, 2018
Joaquin Avila
Joaquin Avila

The voting rights movement lost one of its greatest champions this month when former Professor Joaquin Avila passed away. Seattle University School of Law will remember his contributions to the country and the law school at the Latinx Community Awards on March 21.

"Joaquin inspired so many of our students because his work showed in such a concrete way that law could be used as a tool for positive change," said Dean Annette Clark '89. Professor Avila, 69, died on Friday, March 9, at his home in Shoreline.

The reception on Wednesday, March 21, will also honor three other advocates and friends of the Latinx legal community.

Debra M. Akhbari '13 will receive La Justicia Award, Janet Rodrigues Mondlane '17 will receive the Spirit of Service Award, and Rocky White will receive the Latinx Amicus Award.

Professor Avila was a nationally recognized civil rights advocate when he joined the law school's faculty as an assistant professor of law in 2005. As a leader of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), he successfully argued two voting rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and he was instrumental in passage of the 2001 California Voting Rights Act.

Professor Avila developed his passion for ensuring equal representation for minorities while working for MALDEF in the 1970s in rural Texas. He later spent many years filing legal challenges to discriminatory methods of elections, gerrymandered districts, violations of the one-person one-vote principle, and non-compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

In 1996, he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, one of several accolades for his work on voting rights.

In 2009, Professor Avila founded and became executive director of the law school's National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative, which operated as part of the Korematsu Center for Law and Equality until 2013. During that time, he helped draft the Washington Voting Rights Act, which passed just a few days before he died. Governor Inslee has invited his family to attend the bill signing ceremony in Olympia.

Professor Avila suffered a stroke in 2011 that left him unable to teach full-time, but he continued to speak out on voting rights issues after leaving the law school.

Three other civil rights advocates will be honored by the law school and the Latinx Law Student Association.

Debra Akhbari '13 is a commercial litigator with the Seattle law firm Helsell Fetterman LLP and president-elect of the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington. Akhbari represents both plaintiffs and defendants in commercial disputes, property disputes, insurance coverage and personal injury actions. She also serves as the co-chair for the Puget Sound Lawyers Chapter of the American Constitution Society. An alumna of Seattle University School of Law, she mentors law students and is a member of the law school's Law Alumni Board and the Public Interest Law Foundation steering committee.

Janet Rodrigues Mondlane '17 is an immigration attorney with Colectiva Legal del Pueblo. As a student, she interned with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, where she focused primarily on family-based immigration petitions. During law school, she worked in the Youth Advocacy Clinic, representing youth in detention and working on special immigrant juvenile status visas. Mondlane migrated to the United States from Mozambique with her mother when she was 9 years old and was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Rocky White's bilingual English and Spanish law practice focuses on helping startups and small business owners form their companies, operate their businesses, and protect their intellectual property. White recently opened his own firm, Lumina Legal, where he continues to counsel local entrepreneurs. In his free time, White volunteers with the Latina/o Bar Association of Washington, races bikes with the Apex Racing team, and backpacks in the Cascades.

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