Judge Frank Torres’ impact and legacy transcended his 14-year stay on the New York Supreme Court bench.
For many, Torres, who passed away at age 93 due to complications from pneumonia on Thursday, was a pioneer and trailblazer who opened doors for Hispanic representation in New York’s judicial scene.
Torres, a Bronx native, served in the criminal court as an acting Supreme Court justice and was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1987 and served on the bench until 2001.
“He had a vision that expanded far beyond the courts, inspiring young people to enter the legal profession and working in our community generally for the betterment of all,” said retired Associate Justice of the Court of Appeals Carmen Ciparick, who c0-founded the Latino Judges Association with Torres.
“He was a driving force in establishing what is now known as the Latino Judges Association bringing together Latino judges and promoting our advancement within the judicial system while at the same time creating a pipeline for our Latino students through mentoring, internship opportunities, and even scholarships.”
Torres’ father Felipe was among the first Puerto Ricans elected to the New York State Assembly representing the South Bronx before the younger Torres succeeded him in the statehouse as a Democrat in 1961.
Torres in his lone term in the Assembly lobbied for the elimination of English literacy tests for Puerto Rican voters, a measure that was banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After law school, Torres served as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx and founded the Ponce de Leon Federal Savings Bank, one of the first banking institutions specifically established to serve the Hispanic population. The bank has three branches in the Bronx.
Torres’ career continued when he worked in the New York office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, a post he served in for 15 years, before becoming the director of civil rights and equal opportunity of the New York area office.
But he would soon receive a career-defining appointment to Family Court by then-mayor Edward Koch in 1980.
When he was appointed to the New York Supreme Court in 1987, Torres was a vocal proponent of increased Latino representation on judicial benches across the state.
In 1991, he penned an article in The New York State Bar Journal and pointed out a lack of judicial diversity in New York, particularly among the then-1.8 million Hispanic New Yorkers. According to Torres, despite 2,000 Hispanic lawyers practicing in the state, there was not one Hispanic judge on any benches.
In that same year, the National Bar Association honored Torres with the Wiley T. Branton Award for “leadership on
the cutting edge of law for civil, social, and economic justice.
“This absence is a vestige of American unequal opportunity and racial discrimination,” he wrote.
In addition to founding the Latino Judges Association, Torres also became heavily involved in promoting judgeships and legal pathways for high school and college students.
One of Torres’ many former interns and current judge of the New York Supreme Court 12th Judicial District, Eddie McShan described Torres as a sincere judge well-respected by both prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, who didn’t hesitate to bring people from non-traditional backgrounds and show them pathways into the judicial arena.
“He would take on kids who many classified as problem children and would have them intern in his chambers and show them a world outside of the Bronx and outside of their circumstances and environments,” McShan said. “It’s something that I felt inspired to do as well … He was an inspirational figure for not just minorities but anyone who worked in his chambers.”
Torres also pushed for law firms to broaden their hiring searches to seek more Hispanic candidates, marking a crossroad in the topic of judicial diversity.
“Perhaps more than anyone, he understood that our system of justice works best when it truly represents the people it serves,” T. Andrew Brown, president of the New York State Bar Association, said in a statement. “At the heart of his legal career and jurisprudence was his deep commitment to justice for the common man.”
Torres’ daughter Analisa serves as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, having been nominated by former President Barack Obama in 2013.
Reach Robbie Sequeira at email@example.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter @bronxtimes and Facebook @bronxtimes.