The Rise and Fall of Enrique Moreno
The El Paso lawyer refuses to let a political derailment make him bitter
Published in 2008 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 15, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
How do you react when you’re offered an opportunity of a lifetime, an opportunity you never chased and never expected to get, only to have that opportunity snatched from your grasp through no fault of your own?
Enrique Moreno faced that exact situation, and how he dealt with it has helped define him ever since.
In 1999, during the waning days of the Clinton administration, Moreno was nominated for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. It was an exhilarating honor for a man who, while relatively unknown outside of El Paso, was respected, even revered by those who did know him.
The nomination, he says today, came as something of a shock. A lifelong Democrat who had twice voted for Clinton, he was by no stretch of the imagination an “FOB,” shorthand for “Friend of Bill.”
“I’d never met Bill Clinton before I got a call from someone at the White House asking if I’d be interested in being considered for the 5th Circuit,” Moreno says, sitting in the conference room of his downtown El Paso office, across the street from the rumbling construction site of a new federal courthouse.
Moreno concedes he experienced a variety of emotions when that life-changing call came, not least of which was concern that, if nominated, his schedule would have been hard on his wife, Carmen, and their then-11-year-old son Enrique Jr., since he’d be commuting from El Paso to New Orleans.
Still, these concerns were quickly stilled as what he calls a “sense of duty” kicked in.
“I realized it wasn’t a choice, but an obligation,” he explains. “Very few people of my background have ever been afforded this kind of opportunity.”
That background is as stereotypical as it is inspiring: a mixture of parents seeking a better life for their children, hard work and a few lucky breaks. The youngest of three children, Moreno was born in 1955 in the company clinic of American Smelting and Refining Company’s Chihuahua City, Mexico, plant where his father was employed as a steel worker. He was still an infant when the family moved to El Paso, where his father became a carpenter, and his mother a seamstress.
A product of El Paso’s public school system, Moreno received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and graduated from Harvard Law, class of ’81. With college classmates such as Benazir Bhutto and Caroline Kennedy, Moreno admits he sometimes felt overwhelmed, even scared.
“I thought everyone there was smarter than me,” he says. “So I worked all the time. I remember getting angry because they closed the library at 10 on Saturday nights. I was like, ‘But I have work to do.’ After a while, I realized I could do the work and do it well. And that sense of confidence has carried me through the rest of my life.”
Moreno always wanted to practice labor law and, for much of his career, he has done just that.
“I guess I have this inherent sense of justice, fairness and equality, and labor law is one area where you can work toward that. I clerked for a firm in Chicago doing international work that sounded exotic but was paralyzingly dull.”
Many of his Harvard classmates went to high-powered firms in New York or Washington, D.C. Moreno returned to El Paso to work at Kemp Smith, one of the city’s largest firms.
Still, it was El Paso.
“They all thought I was crazy, like I was wasting my education,” he says. “But I have roots here.”
The firm taught him ethics, professionalism and “how to be a really good lawyer.” Soon after making partner, he went off on his own, first in a two-man office and then, since 1999, as a solo practitioner.
In addition to labor law, he has carved out a name handling civil rights, personal injury and traditional plaintiff trial cases.
Then came the call from the White House.
While he knew that his nomination wasn’t assured—an election year was approaching—the initial signs looked good. The American Bar Association gave him its highest, unanimous endorsement while local groups and officials, Republican and Democratic, Hispanic and Anglo, supported his nomination.
“Enrique is simply the best of the best,” says Congressman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. “He has all the attributes of a great lawyer; he is a man of principle and impeccable character, and is well-respected by the members of his profession.”
Then, like lightning from a thunderstorm that rolls out of the desert mountains, Texas’ two Republican senators, Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, shocked city residents by sending a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch claiming that Moreno was unqualified to sit on the 5th Circuit. “Mr. Moreno simply had not achieved the level of experience necessary to be fully engaged and effective on a court one notch below the United States Supreme Court,” read the letter.
The claim was particularly appalling to Moreno’s supporters because the senators blocked the nomination simply by withholding the “blue slip” that is sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee to signal approval of a nominee. That’s what they did to Clinton’s previous nominee to the 5th Circuit, Jorge Rangel, who withdrew his name after waiting more than two years for hearings to be called.
Moreno says he had no personal or professional relationship with either of the state’s two senators. But what many perceived as their unnecessary provocation caused a firestorm in El Paso, which often feels slighted by those in power, be they in Austin or Washington, D.C. There were protests on the federal courthouse steps and e-mail barrages aimed at Gramm and Hutchison. A local artist wrote a Spanish-language ballad called a corrido, the lyrics, in part, translating to, “He never imagined he would be betrayed/But two wicked senators were against him.”
“People would stop me on the streets and say, ‘You’re a folk hero,'” recalls Moreno. “One elderly lady told me she was lighting candles for me.”
The fig leaf used to support the claim that Moreno lacked experience was a vote by a nonpartisan committee (according to Gramm) called the Federal Judicial Advisory Group, which the senator had long used to vet prospective judges. Ignoring the fact that the U.S. Constitution specifically reserves for the Senate’s right to advise and consent on judicial nominations, Gramm and Hutchison relied on the committee’s vote against Moreno to make their decision. Of the 31 FJAG members, 10 voted against the confirmation, five were in favor, and 16 abstained.
At the time, a Hutchison spokeswoman noted that the FJAG had previously approved 17 Clinton nominees, rejecting only two. Still, the accepted explanation was that Republicans did not want to approve a Democratic president’s nominee so close to the election.
According to Reyes, Gramm indicated that, if Moreno withdrew his name, he would support his nomination if a Democrat won the 2000 presidential election. Moreno refused.
Through it all, Moreno kept his own counsel. He refused all entreaties to take his case to the media or publicly criticize Gramm and Hutchison. Then, as soon as George W. Bush took office, Moreno’s nomination was withdrawn.
“Fortunately,” he says with a wry smile, “I didn’t quit my day job. I continued to practice law and to do what I love. It’s not productive to second-guess the way these things turn out. I’m a person of faith and I believe things happen for a reason. I’ve tried to live without bitterness or resentment.”
He has also since lived with his share of success.
As sole attorney in Carrington v. Southwest Airlines he won his client, a college professor of Persian descent who claimed false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, a $27.5 million verdict. (A confidential settlement was later reached.)
“That was a real David and Goliath case, a great case,” says Judge Linda Yee Chew of the 327th District Court, adding that, although the case wasn’t heard in her court, she found it so fascinating she sat in on the closing arguments.
When the initial judgment in the high-profile, terrorism-related case was criticized by The Wall Street Journal, Moreno concedes he was distressed. That is, until a fellow attorney told him it was a “badge of honor” to get on the wrong side of the Journal’s editorial board.
Other multimillion-dollar jury decisions he has won include cases involving mesothelioma, and a racial discrimination case against Union Pacific railroad. He’s currently involved in a large class action lawsuit that claims that hundreds of NATO personnel were injured by radar equipment used at nearby Fort Bliss.
While Moreno has been encouraged to run for state office, and many of his supporters, like Chew, hope he’ll someday get a second crack at the 5th Circuit, for now he says he’s happy practicing law. Indeed, he says that, after all these years, he still gets nervous when word comes that a jury has reached a decision.
“For most of my clients, this will be a defining moment in their lives,” he says. “They’ve usually lost a loved one due to some other calamity and, while money can’t replace that person, it can make a difference. This is their one opportunity to make their life better, so I can never forget that so much is riding on this one case.”