Growing up in Havana, Pedro Luis Irigonegaray saw the damage government can do to its people. Even as a young boy, Irigonegaray knew Cubans were being tortured and killed by General Ruben Fulgencio Batista’s oppressive regime. He never forgot how the judicial system failed its citizens.
In 1959, Fidel Castro took control of the country. For a brief period, Irigonegaray’s family was hopeful that the new government would be better for their nation. Their hopes were quickly dashed. On Jan. 13, 1961, Irigonegaray and his mother left Cuba for the United States.
“My parents realized that the dictatorship coming on was going to be even more repressive than the one before,” Irigonegaray says.
Only 12 years old, he left behind his father, his sisters, his grandparents and his home. He left behind his language and culture. The plan was for the rest of the family to follow when possible.
It was the worst day of his life, but it made Irigonegaray the attorney he is today. He dedicates himself to giving his clients a fair shake in the courtroom—an opportunity he says most Cubans can’t enjoy.
“I believe being a trial lawyer is a privilege,” says Irigonegaray, of Irigonegaray & Associates in Topeka. “It allows me the opportunity to participate in the evolution of our society. As trial lawyers, we must ensure, to the best of our abilities, to choose carefully when we draw our sword and, once drawn, that it is not sheathed without honor.”
Irigonegaray’s father and sisters eventually came to the United States in the summer of 1961 and the reunited family moved to Topeka. He attended Washburn University for his bachelor’s and law degrees, graduating from its law school in 1973.
Building up his criminal defense and trial law practice over the years, Irigonegaray made headlines for representing a Mennonite man who shot his boss eight times in front of 15 witnesses in 1981. Irigonegaray laid out a case for the murder as self-defense: The Mennonite claimed he was kept as a homosexual sex slave and was threatened with death by castration.
After only an hour of deliberation, the jury found him not guilty. The prosecution was dumbfounded, later telling the newspapers they were “totally shocked” by the verdict.
But Irigonegaray’s biggest client came along in 1991, when Joan Finney became governor of Kansas. Upon taking office, she asked Irigonegaray to serve as her counsel. In 1992, the state senate sued Finney over her efforts to give Native Americans in Kansas the right to establish casinos. Irigonegaray argued the case all the way to the state Supreme Court, which found in favor of Finney in 1994.
“I had no idea at the time that it would turn into such a huge industry for the state,” Irigonegaray says now.
Over the years, Irigonegaray has established his reputation as a high-profile attorney with international connections and perspectives.
When a University of Kansas student studying ferns in Costa Rica was stabbed to death in 2001, Irigonegaray volunteered his services. He had been in the country only a month before, meeting with lawyers and studying the Costa Rican judicial system. He met with detectives and prosecutors, serving as the representative for the slain student’s family. Two people were eventually convicted of the murder in 2003.
In 2005, Irigonegaray took on another headline case. The Kansas State Department of Education asked him to represent mainstream science in a hearing over whether to include the study of evolution in the state’s curriculum. Evolution has been established by science, he argued, but intelligent design, a term used to describe an offshoot of the creationism theory, is best studied in a philosophy class.
“Because of my own personal history, I defend the right of any citizen to their faith of choice,” Irigonegaray says. “We must be very alert to the constitutional rights of each and every citizen to exercise their faith without government interference. But what is also just as important is the right of every citizen to be free from having religious views imposed upon them by government.”
In the end, changes to the curriculum were made that added the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. After several of the state Board of Education members who supported the curriculum changes lost their seats in the subsequent election, the changes were overturned.
Irigonegaray doesn’t shy from unpopular positions—like arguing for gay marriage, representing a transgender client or calling for an end to the Cuban trade embargo. It’s that dedication that impresses clients and colleagues.
L.J. Leatherman was a first-year law student 18 years ago at Washburn University when he heard Irigonegaray speak to his class. All Leatherman could think was “Wow.”
Irigonegaray’s passion and tenacity for the law made a big impact on the young student. Irigonegaray told him, “Every once in a while a lawyer gets the opportunity to make a difference.” That message stuck with Leatherman, now an attorney specializing in tort litigation at Topeka’s Palmer, Leatherman, & White. Since that time, he has frequently called Irigonegaray for advice.
“The true soul of a lawyer is reflected in the actions of Pedro,” Leatherman says. “He understands the importance of the doctrine of the rule of law and does everything he can to make sure his clients are treated equally in the eyes of the justice system.”
Ron Griffin, a professor of law at Washburn University and a friend of Irigonegaray, says it’s Irigonegaray’s loyalty and compassion that sets him apart. “His steadfastness and his conviction to doing high-quality work make him an exceptional lawyer,” Griffin says. “He is held in high regard by his peers and is respected by judges.”
Irigonegaray has traveled back to Cuba on three separate occasions. His aunts still live in Cuba—his father’s side of the family are Castro supporters—and he frequently speaks out on U.S.-Cuban reconciliation. On the last trip, Irigonegaray visited with representatives of the Cuban Communist Party and the government, including Castro.
He is hopeful that Cubans will one day be free, but he says that it is not up to the United States to determine Cuba’s future; it is up to the people and their government.
“I believe that if we lifted the embargo and allowed the United States to bombard Cuba with ideas and with our people, then Cuba would stop seeing our American government as a potential enemy and refocus their attention to their own internal affairs and that things in Cuba will change,” he says.
So while he cannot personally make the changes he’d like to see in Cuba, Irigonegaray instead changes the lives of his clients.
Whether it’s helping a single mother being mistreated by an insurance company or an individual who has been falsely accused, Irigonegaray says he’ll continue to work to make sure his clients in Topeka get what his family in Cuba cannot.
“I can tell you that each day in this profession brings me joy and a sense of satisfaction,” Irigonegaray says. “There are a lot of battles out there to be fought and a lot of issues to be addressed. It’s those types of battles that add value to my life.”