Irma Vidal Santaella: 1924—: Justice, Lawyer Biography
Irma Vidal Santaella championed Puerto Rican and other minority rights in New York for over thirty years. In 1961 she became the first Puerto Rican woman admitted to the New York State Bar, and in 1983 she became the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the New York Supreme Court. She helped found the Hispanic Community Chest of America, the National Federation of Puerto Rican Women, and the National Association for Puerto Rico Civil Rights, and served on numerous commissions including the New York City Advisory Council on Minority Affairs. During her 11 years on the bench, she remained committed to social activism, and earned a reputation as a hard working and thorough jurist.
Santaella was born in New York City on October 4, 1924, but was raised by her mother and aunts in Puerto Rico. She graduated from Modern Business College in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1942, and enrolled in pre-med classes at Inter-American University in San German, Puerto Rico, where she remained for two years. In New York, she earned a bachelor of arts degree from Hunter College in 1959 and worked as an accountant while attending Brooklyn Law School. After graduating in 1961, she practiced civil law in the South Bronx for two years.
In the early-to-mid 1960s, Santaella contributed to a number of causes supporting Puerto Rican rights in New York. She founded the Legion of Voters, Inc. in 1962 and served as the organization's president until 1968. In this position, she worked with Senator Jacob Javits and the late Robert F. Kennedy on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, helping to draft an amendment eliminating the English literacy test requirement for non-English speaking citizens. Between 1962 and 1966, Santaella served as the chair of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. In 1966 she was defeated in her bid for a Congressional seat, and, although she ran again in 1968, her campaign lost momentum after her friend Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Despite these setbacks, Santaella remained active in politics. In 1969, she joined the Puerto Rican Committee for the Election of Mario Procaccino and openly criticized Mayor John V. Lindsey for "separating and dividing New Yorkers," quoted the New York Times.
Santaella also remained involved in a number of organizations. In 1971 she was named chairman of the Ladies' National Committee of the Coalition of Hispanic American Peoples, Inc., and in 1975 was appointed to the position of chairperson to the state's Human Rights Appeal Board by New York Governor Hugh L. Carey. The following year she served—for the third time—as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, and also helped found the National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights. Between 1975 and 1977, Santaella served on the New York City Commission on the Status of Women.
In 1983 Santaella became the first Puerto Rican to win a seat on the New York Supreme Court, and she continued to champion minority rights from the bench. In 1987 she refused to allow a Park Avenue landlord to evict Dr. Geoffrey Richstone, who operated his practice from the building. The landlord claimed that Richstone had made renovations without permission, but Santaella discovered that the renovations had been made openly. She also found out that other tenants had complained about the poor, minority clientele that attended Richstone's office, and had requested that they enter by the backdoor of the building. She refused the eviction request, stating that the landlord only seemed to be attempting to block black senior citizens from receiving the medical care they needed.
Santaella also supported First Amendment rights from the bench. In 1990 she was asked by the Catholic Church to stop a production of "The Cardinal Dextoxes" by the RAPP theater company. The Church had rented space to the company, but objected to the content of the 35-minute monologue. "I'm not a censor," the Buffalo News quoted Santaella, "and I'm not going to engage in any act of censorship." Although the company was later evicted under a lease clause prohibiting activity "detrimental to the reputation" of the landlord, "the judge said RAPP had a First Amendment right to perform the play in the meantime," noted Samuel Maull in AP News.
In 1991 Santaella stepped in when members of the New York State Board of Elections (NYSBE) stalled on implementing a program to register poor people and minorities. The program offered a chance for individuals in these groups to sign up as voters from any government office or when registering for a driver's license, but Democrats and Republicans on the NYSBE had disagreed on how much information state employees could provide for applicants. "In a stinging ruling," wrote Tom Precious in the Times Union, "a judge [Santaella] has ordered the state Board of Elections to stop its internal partisan squabbling and begin a voter registration push to be conducted by state agencies." The program, Santaella noted, was designed to give citizens the opportunity to elect officials of their own choosing. "For too long the public interest has been injuriously violated and raped by the arrogance of partisan politics at (the) board … to the detriment of the voting rights of thousands of New Yorkers," Santaella was quoted as saying in the Buffalo News.
In 1994 Santaella ruled against Mayor Rudolf Giuliani when his administration attempted to delay the expansion of New York City's recycling program. In rejecting the bid for delay, she gave the administration three months to raise the collection of recyclable material from 15% to 25%.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Santaella received several awards for her achievements on and off the bench. In 1989 the New York Assembly recognized her high disposition rate in the Manhattan Supreme Court. Between 1983 and 1990 she completed 21,000 cases, and between 1983 and 1989, the higher courts reversed her decisions only 24 times. In 1990 Santaella received an honorary law degree from Sacred Heart University in Connecticut and in 1991 won the National Council of Hispanic Women's Life Achievement award. Santaella retired from the New York State Supreme Court in 1994.
AP News, October 12, 1990.
Buffalo News, October 12, 1990, p. A10; March 3, 1991, p. H10.
New York Times, August 20, 1969, p. 30.
Times Union, February 26, 1991, p. B5.
"Irma Vidal Santaella," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 9, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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