Rivera's Edge

After a year on the job, U.S. Attorney Jose de Jesus Rivera looks to be in the right place at the right time

He recalls the day he was sitting in class and suddenly realized he was thinking in English.

"I think I would have been lost in the public school," he says. "[The Catholic school] showed a lot of patience with my whole family. I'm not the world's best Catholic, but you know what? I think without the time I spent there, I would not be where I am."

He did well enough to win a scholarship to Brophy Academy in Phoenix, but his father wanted him to stay home.

Rivera majored in history and education at Northern Arizona University and helped pay for his education by serving in the National Guard. He went to law school at Arizona State University and intended to return to Flagstaff, but luck and fate took him elsewhere.

The summer before finishing law school, he did an internship with the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund in San Francisco, and his supervisor suggested he apply to the Justice Department. In 1976, he got a job in Washington, D.C., as a Justice Department civil rights lawyer. One week after getting the results of his bar exam, he was sent to New York to work on a federal case against the infamous Willowbrook school.

Willowbrook was an institution for the mentally retarded that burst into the media when a young Geraldo Rivera secretly videotaped the horrendous conditions under which its residents were confined. A lawsuit subsequently was brought against the state of New York, and the Justice Department appeared amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiffs.

On his first day in court, Rivera introduced himself to the judge.
"He looks at me and says, 'Who are you?'" Rivera remembers.
"I'm Jose de Jesus Rivera, and I represent the Department of Justice," he answered.

The judge shook his head and said, "Oh my gosh, not another Rivera."
The courtroom broke up, and Rivera was left wondering what to do next.
He spent two years with Justice, traveling to Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico and points beyond handling civil-rights cases. But he wanted to go home to Arizona.

He had a girlfriend there, Nina, a single mom with two children, who was a student at ASU law school. Now they have been married for 21 years and have three more children. She is a lawyer attached to the U.S. Small Business Administration in Phoenix.

Rivera came to work at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix in 1977.
"He showed up in a pair of black Earth shoes," quips his former colleague at the office and a later law partner, Gary Scales. It was a hint that he was a bit different.

"I remember we all had brown," Scales continues. "He was the first who had black ones."

Scales also remembers that Rivera was full of the liberal idealism that the shoes would suggest. Among his first challenges was a case that resonates eerily with the current mood at the Arizona-Mexico border.

In 1976, three Mexicans slipped across the border only to run into Thomas and Patrick Hanigan, brothers in their 20s on a "wetback-hunting party." The Hanigans allegedly detained the illegals against their will, ripped and burned their clothes, robbed them and fired a shotgun at them.

The Hanigans were tried in state superior court for their actions, but were acquitted. Then they were tried in federal court, only to have the trial end in a hung jury. Rivera entered the case when the U.S. government tried them a second time.

"When I did [the Hanigan case], I started reading the transcript of the first trial, and the translator was obviously someone who learned Spanish as a second language," he recalls. "And I'm realizing as I'm looking at the translation--I don't remember what the exact question was, but the answer came up, 'Twenty feet, more or less.' And the lawyer follows up with, 'Is it more, or is it less?' you know, the typical lawyer way, and it really looks like you're going down a specific angle. But if you look at it in Spanish, it's mas o menos, which means 'approximately,' which is a lot more vague. They lost sight of that at the very beginning of the trial, and it became an important issue throughout the whole trial. I speak to this person for the very first time and he tells me mas o menos, and I immediately know what he's trying to say at the very beginning. Big difference."

The brothers were tried together, but with two juries, one for each brother. One jury brought in a guilty verdict, the other acquitted.

While at the U.S. Attorney's Office, Rivera also handled the first of many major cases against the Arizona Department of Corrections, concerning medical care and the amount of space required for each prisoner. The consent decree was signed by the feds, and the state changed prison conditions for the better--stipulating just how many prisoners could be packed into a cell--and set the stage for major battles between the federal court and ADOC during Fife Symington's terms as governor.

Rivera left the public sector in 1981 to work as a personal-injury lawyer in the private firm Langerman, Begam, Lewis & Marks, and in 1984 he formed the practice Rivera, Scales & Kizer. But he still took the occasional pro bono case. He was city attorney for the town of El Mirage. And he worked hard to overturn the new congressional districts that had been set by a three-judge panel in 1992. Rivera represented the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which felt that the new districts should have been drawn in a way that a Hispanic would be elected. He lost the case, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the appeal was denied.

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