Vol. 31, No. 2
Profiles of Success
Ralph G. Torres
by Larry Bohning
The Colorado Lawyer publishes profiles of practicing lawyers on a quarterly basis. The CBA Profiles Committee chooses Colorado Bar Association members who are nominated as outstanding lawyers by their peers. With these profiles, the CBA hopes to: promote the image of lawyers by emphasizing qualities that should be emulated; show the benefits of public service to both the lawyer who serves and the community; emphasize professionalism; provide role models for new lawyers; manifest ways of becoming successful and respected; and reward deserving lawyers for their contributions to the profession. Standards and procedures for these profiles differ from those established for the annual July issue featuring outstanding lawyers in Colorado history. These profiles of lawyers are an opportunity to highlight the qualities that are important for effective lawyering in today’s legal practice. We welcome feedback at any time. Please send your suggestions, comments, or questions about this ongoing feature to: Arlene Abady, Managing Editor, 1900 Grant St., Suite 900, Denver, CO 80203; (303) 824-5325; fax: (303) 830-3990; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Denver attorney Ralph G. Torres traces his American roots back to a time before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. His ancestors were with Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate in 1598, when Oñate led a small group of explorers through Mexico into what is now New Mexico. Torres’s ancestors and others of the Oñate party settled in southern New Mexico. This article profiles Ralph G. Torres, one of Colorado’s best known employment law attorneys and a person who has dedicated countless hours of service to make other people’s lives better.
Ralph G. Torres
The Early Years
Ralph was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on May 11, 1939. While growing up, Ralph was surrounded by loving family members and friends. His parents, Raymond and Annie, divorced when he was very young, and he and his mother moved in with "Grandpa Pete." Grandpa Pete, a major influence in Ralph’s life, took him everywhere, including to the local courthouse to watch his grandpa’s favorite attorneys in action. Las Cruces was a desert town of about 15,000 people, and Grandpa Pete seemed to know almost all of them. Politicians, including U.S. Senator Dennis Chavez, would stop by to see Grandpa Pete and ask for his advice and support. Grandpa Pete worked for the El Paso Electric Co. and the City of Las Cruces. He told Ralph he should be a lawyer when he grew up.
Ralph Torres attributes much of his success in life to a trilogy of women. First was his mother, who worked hard to support the family. She worked in a laundry, did janitorial work, and served as a teacher’s aide. She always stressed to Ralph the importance of education as the key to getting ahead in life. Then there was Sister Herman Joseph, his first grade teacher who made learning fun. And finally, Maria Guiterrez Spencer, his high school Spanish teacher, was a taskmaster who encouraged hard work and taught her students to excel. Ralph still quotes her words in both Spanish and English.
Neighbors also were an important part of Ralph’s life while he was growing up, and many are still his good friends. His mother and grandfather (Grandpa Pete) pointed out Hispanic role models in their neighborhood who did well because they were educated. Among those were Daniel Sosa, an attorney, then district attorney, and later a New Mexico Supreme Court justice, and Jake Aragon, President of the First National Bank in Las Cruces.
Ralph grew up in a bilingual environment, which has served him well. His family spoke English and Spanish at home, often switching between the two in the middle of a sentence. Ralph’s mother loved to listen to Frank Sinatra and big band music, while Aunt Eliza Pacheco would frequently take him to Spanish-language movies. His great-grandmother, Carmen Bernal, who lived to the age of 113, only spoke to him in Spanish. Because of his family, Ralph grew up completely bilingual and with a profound appreciation of both cultures.
During his school years, Ralph developed a love of music. Starting in the eighth grade, he played tenor saxophone and was "first chair" throughout high school. During high school, he and three friends formed a rock and roll band called "The Saints." He won a music scholarship to Colorado State Teacher’s College (now University of Northern Colorado—UNC) in Greeley, but turned it down because he wanted to go to California to find work and see if California really was the "land of milk and honey."
The Army and College
After graduating from high school in 1958, Ralph had a brief stint working odd jobs in California and spending time on the beach. However, the smog exacerbated his allergies, so Ralph returned to Las Cruces, joining the U.S. Army in 1959. While he was at boot camp in Fort Chafee, Arkansas, he was profoundly disturbed by the racism he saw—African-Americans were forced to use separate drinking fountains, restrooms, and restaurant seating. After boot camp, he was assigned to attend the Army Security Agency School at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Ralph then was assigned to Eilson Air Force Base, twenty-six miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska. In Alaska, he managed to survive temperatures of more than thirty degrees below zero and frequent Strategic Air Command alerts. After army service, Ralph returned to Las Cruces and entered New Mexico State University in 1962.
University of Denver College of Law
When Ralph graduated from New Mexico State University in 1967 with a degree in business administration, he decided he wanted to go to law school. He was debating between a Ph.D. in economics and law school. He decided he was better suited for law, as Grandpa Pete had suggested. His timing could not have been better. In the mid-1960s Robert Yegge, Dean of the University of Denver College of Law ("DU"), had served as Chairman of the Colorado Migrant Council and the Colorado Governor’s Council on Economic Opportunity. Yegge’s experience on these commissions made him deeply concerned about the almost total lack of Hispanic lawyers in Colorado. Yegge was successful in obtaining a Ford Foundation grant to establish a two-month summer program to prepare Hispanic candidates for law school. The top students would be admitted with full financial aid and support for three years of law school. Ralph Torres was in the first class of the summer programs and went on to graduate from DU in 1970. Yegge credits Torres and his colleagues with demonstrating the effectiveness of the program. In 1968, the American Bar Association and American Association of Law Schools established a National Council on Legal Education Opportunity ("CLEO"), and summer programs based on the DU model were established around the country. In praising his former student and now close friend, Yegge says of Torres: "His alma mater is extremely proud of him for his abilities, his accomplishments, and his many contributions to the professional and larger community."1
The Probation Officer
Shortly before he started DU law school in June 1967, Ralph met a probation officer in Las Cruces named Patricio Serna, who was also headed for DU law school. They became law school roommates, traveled back and forth between Colorado and New Mexico together, and formed an enduring friendship. When Ralph married Lynn Davis in Sante Fe, New Mexico, in 1994, Serna was their best man. On January 5, 2001, Ralph and his wife Lynn, along with Robert Yegge (who became Dean Emeritus and DU Professor of Law), joined the proud observers as Serna was sworn in as Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Justice Serna fondly remembers the time when he and Ralph were building their friendship. He recalls a humorous incident that happened when they were law students. They went into a local men’s clothing store in Denver, and Ralph wrote a check for the full amount of the clothing he wanted to purchase. The sales clerk looked at the check and abruptly tore it up. When Ralph asked why, she said because he had voided his signature on the check. When Ralph explained to her that the "chicken scratch" was his signature and future Supreme Court Justice Serna vouched for the same, she accepted a new check. Chief Justice Serna recently said of Torres: "His integrity, professionalism, community service, dedication, and perseverance are profound. He is not only highly respected, but also liked and admired by his legal peers and by all who know him. I am proud and honored to say that Ralph is and always will be one of my dearest friends."2
A "One of a Kind" Civil Rights Lawyer
When Ralph graduated from law school in 1970, he was hired by Howard Rosenberg to work for the Denver Legal Aid Office. He was assigned to the Adams County office in Brighton, where he represented low-income clients in state courts. In October 1971, Ralph became associate counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund ("MALDEF") and also coordinator for the student practice program at the DU law school. In one of the many cases he handled at MALDEF, he and co-counsel Kenneth Padilla succeeded in convincing a federal judge to grant an injunction against a southern Colorado town for unconstitutionally jailing Hispanic suspects.
Another attorney Torres worked with at MALDEF was Federico Peña, who would go on to be elected to the Colorado House of Representatives, Mayor of the City and County of Denver (1983-1991), and serve as U.S. Secretary of Transportation and U.S. Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration. Torres and Peña, who now works for Vestar Capital Partners, can frequently be found at the Denver Athletic Club trading political stories while engaging in rigorous physical workouts. Peña lauds his long-time friend:
Ralph Torres is "one of a kind." I first met Ralph when I joined MALDEF in the early ’70s and was immediately impressed with his legal acumen and commitment to fighting discrimination. Ralph was already handling complex federal litigation and he did so with vigor. . . . A "one of a kind" trait that Ralph Torres had was to talk straight. I recall that Ralph was one of the few civil rights lawyers who had the integrity and courage to tell prospective clients that they had not been discriminated against by an employer, but rather that they had inappropriate work habits that were likely the cause of their employment problems. This "tough love" would cause those people to re-examine their lifestyle and to discard that attitude that "discrimination" was always the cause of their personal shortcomings. Obviously, when there was an injustice to a client, you could not find a fiercer advocate than Ralph Torres. . . . Our state is fortunate to have Ralph Torres, as he truly is "one of a kind."3
In 1973, Ralph went to work as a staff attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") in Denver. He tried employment discrimination cases on behalf of the federal government in federal courts in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Texas, and Oklahoma. In addition, he defended the EEOC against lawsuits filed by former or current EEOC employees. While working at the EEOC, Torres served as senior trial attorney, supervisory trial attorney, and acting regional attorney.
After spending thirteen years at the EEOC, Torres left to establish his own solo practice in 1986, specializing in employment and labor discrimination law. Since that time, he has established a reputation as one of the top employment law attorneys in Colorado. Ralph represents both claimants and management in employment discrimination and wrongful termination actions in state and federal courts in Colorado and before state and federal regulatory agencies. He frequently lectures on EEO and employment discrimination law for the Hispanic National Bar Association, Colorado Bar Association, colleges and universities, community groups, and state and federal agencies. In addition, he presents seminars for clients and managers on a variety of labor, EEO, and employment discrimination topics.
DU Law Star
Ralph has been extremely loyal to the University of Denver College of Law and is active in its alumni activities. He served on the Law Alumni Council from 1991 to 1997 and as chair from 1994 to 1996. He has been an honorary member since 1997. Ralph also served on the Dean’s Search Committee in 1997 to help select a new law school dean and had been national chairman of the Robert B. Yegge Hispanic Scholarship Committee.
In 1998, DU law school acknowledged Ralph Torres and all of his accomplishments with one of its highest honors, that of DU "Law Star." He was presented with the Outstanding Alumni Award. In a nominating letter for Ralph, DU law school Professor Jim Wallace said: "I nominate Ralph Torres with great pride to be one of our DU Law Stars. He represents what we profess." Ralph is still visibly touched when asked about receiving the DU Outstanding Alumni Award.
Another horor was bestowed on Ralph in April 2000. He was inducted into the New Mexico State University College of Business Administration and Economics Hall of Fame.
While his solo practice keeps Ralph busy, he has a strong belief in giving back to the community in recognition for all he has so generously received from others. It is beyond the scope of this article to review the myriad community activities with which the gracious and energetic Ralph Torres has been involved. Here are but a few.
Torres was an initial member of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association, founded in 1977 with fewer than a dozen members. The organization has since grown to several hundred members and has become a vital force in Colorado cultural and civic affairs. In 1991, Torres was presented the Outstanding Lawyer Award by the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association. Through the years, Ralph has willingly devoted his time, without cost, to numerous young attorneys who have sought him out for advice and counsel. Torres also serves on the Denver Bar Association ("DBA") Professional Conciliation Panel. The Panel holds private consultations with attorneys where rude and unprofessional behavior is involved.
Torres was a representative on the Board of Governors of the Colorado Bar Association ("CBA") from 1994 to 1996 and has served on a number of CBA and DBA committees. In 1993, Ralph was a founding member of the Alfred A. Arraj American Inns of Court. From 1989 to 1996, Torres served on the Board of Directors of the American-Israel Friendship League, and was Vice-President in 1989. In addition to being on the League board, he served as the finance committee chair and as a member of the committee that planned the "Partners in Education Award Dinner" for the League. From 1989 to 1994, Ralph served as a Colorado Real Estate Commissioner.
For the thousands of Denver-area residents who have enjoyed attending performances of Broadway productions at the Buell Theater in downtown Denver, Ralph Torres played a role. He strongly believes that the arts are extremely important in people’s lives. From 1989 to 1997, he served on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Complex. In that capacity, he helped raise money to build the showpiece Buell Theater, which provides a venue for touring Broadway productions. His name can be found on plaques on the mezzanine level as a Board member, Secretary of the Board, and contributor.
Serving Higher Education
In 1993, then-Colorado Governor Roy Romer appointed Ralph to a four-year term on the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education. This Board comprises nine members, with six members appointed from each congressional district and three appointed at-large. The Board governs thirteen state system community colleges, oversees local district community colleges and area vocational schools, and sets policy for career and technical education programs in more than 150 secondary school districts. Romer re-appointed Torres to the Board in 1997, where he served as vice-chair in 1997-1998, chair in 1998-1999, and vice-chair again 1999-2000.
One of the remarkable community colleges in the state system is the Community College of Denver located on the Auraria campus in Denver. It has been recognized nationally for "dramatically increasing student diversity while virtually eliminating the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students."4 Dr. Christine Johnson, the dynamic President of the Community College of Denver, says:
Ralph Torres made enormous contributions to higher education in Colorado while serving on the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education. He spearheaded the drive to expand educational options to meet the needs of local communities. Responding to business and industry workforce demands became his priority, second only to meeting the needs of students. In addition to his service on the state board, he had previously served seven years on the Community College of Denver Advisory Council, providing leadership and counsel to its president. In both roles, his overarching goals were to make a Colorado community college education affordable and accessible to all. His commitment to educational access for underserved Coloradoans serves as a model for others. Ralph Torres’s lifetime of service has touched and made better the lives of countless Coloradoans.5
Shaping the Judiciary
Torres has been influential in the selection of a generation of Denver county judges. In January 1985, then-Denver Mayor Federico Peña appointed him to the Denver County Court Judicial Nomination Commission. The seven-member Commission is responsible for interviewing and submitting nominees to the mayor for appointment to the seventeen-member Denver County Court bench. Torres served throughout the Peña administration, was reappointed by Mayor Webb, and has served as chair (1994-1998). During Torres’s tenure, the Commission has been responsible for making nominations for twenty-one judicial appointments.6
In 1998 and 1999, Chief Judge Richard P. Matsch for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado appointed Ralph to serve on the Merit Selection Panel for U.S. Magistrate Judges. Current Chief Judge Lewis T. Babcock reappointed him to the Panel in 2000. Among the federal Magistrate Judges appointed while Ralph has served on the Panel are Boyd N. Boland,
O. Edward Schlatter, Craig B. Shaffer, and Michael J. Watanabe. Moreover, since 1999, Torres has been on the Board of the Colorado Judicial Institute. The Institute is a nonprofit corporation incorporated in 1979 to promote the excellence of the state’s judicial system and to encourage public understanding and appreciation of the judicial system.
A Fine Legacy
Ralph Torres exudes a great energy and enthusiasm. He is not a bystander to life. He is an optimist. Ralph came from modest beginnings and built on the strengths of loving family members, friends, and teachers. In turn, many have benefited from Ralph’s generosity. They include clients he has represented; judges he has helped select; young attorneys he has counseled; students, administrators, and teachers in the state’s community college system; and other members of the bar. Many already know Ralph Torres and are familiar with the good he has done. But it is likely that thousands of students who have benefited from the state’s community college system, thousands who have enjoyed productions at the Buell Theater, and thousands who have appeared before a knowledgeable and fair judge Ralph helped select will never know his name. Blessings on his head. Tell him next time you see him.
1. E-mail from Robert B. Yegge (Nov. 30, 2001). Yegge, originally from Denver, graduated from Princeton in 1956. In 1965, at the age of 30, he was appointed Dean of the University of Denver College of Law, the youngest of American law school deans at the time. He resigned the Dean’s post effective July 1, 1977, but remains on the faculty as Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law.
2. E-mail from Chief Justice Patricio Serna (Dec. 3, 2001).
3. E-mail from former Mayor Federico Peña (Dec. 7, 2001).
4. Roueche, Ely, and Roueche, In Pursuit of Excellence: The Community College of Denver (Wash., D.C.: Community College Press, 2001) at viii.
5. E-mail from Dr. Christine Johnson (Dec. 3, 2001).
6. Judges appointed to the Denver County Court while Ralph Torres has been on the Commission include: Federico Alvarez, Andrew Armatas, Kathleen Bowers, Teresa Brake, James Breese, Doris Burd, Mary Celeste (first openly gay female judge in Colorado), Celeste C de Baca, Arthur Fine, Janice (Fischbach) Davidson, Herbert Galchinsky, Alfred Harrell, Claudia Jordan (first African-American female judge in Colorado), Larry Manzanares, John Marcucci, Melvin Okamoto (first Asian American appointed to Denver County Court bench), Aleene Ortiz-White, Robert Patterson, David Ramirez, Raymond Satter, and Jacqueline St. Joan.
Larry Bohning, a Denver County Court Judge, worked with Ralph G. Torres when Torres was Chairman of the Denver County Court Judicial Nomination Commission and Bohning was the Presiding Judge.
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