Hanging in the Smithsonian
It’s John Huerta’s dream job: overseeing national treasures from a bona fi de castle
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2008 magazine
on April 1, 2008
Updated on May 27, 2022
Not many lawyers get to commute each day along the National Mall, passing world-class museums that house the Hope Diamond, Winslow Homer landscapes, Henry Moore sculptures and some 136 million other artifacts. Even fewer get to work in a bona fide castle. John Huerta does. Since 1995, he’s served as general counsel of the Smithsonian Institution. “It’s my dream job,” he says.
Huerta is surrounded by breathtaking images. His office, which is on the third floor of the 19th-century red sandstone Smithsonian Castle building, overlooks the Capitol, its awe-inspiring cast-iron dome sparkling in the sun. Yet the soft-spoken attorney—tall, slim, wearing olive corduroy slacks, his off-white shirt almost matching his thick head of hair—prefers to look somewhere else: at the far wall, where a brightly colored painting of an African-American couple dancing hangs.
“I didn’t know anything about the artist at first,” Huerta says, cocking his head and studying it. “I just fell in love with his work.”
The piece, by the late William H. Johnson, an African-American modernist of the early 1900s, is titled “Jitterbug.” Huerta discovered it in 1993 when he saw it on a Taj Mahal album cover; he knew the Smithsonian had the rights to it since “the album cover says, ‘Copyright Smithsonian Institution.’” When he got the job he requested that the painting be hung in his office.
He is proud of all that the Smithsonian has done to preserve and promote the work of Johnson, who went largely unrecognized in his lifetime and died penniless. “One of the things the Smithsonian did was to catalog his work and distribute pieces to African-American museums and historically black colleges,” Huerta says. “He’s finally gotten some of the recognition he deserves.”
Like Johnson, Huerta grew up in difficult circumstances. Huerta’s father, Edmundo Huerta, immigrated to Central Los Angeles from Mexico with his 12 siblings and parents at the age of 11. “He didn’t want his children to speak Spanish,” he says. “He felt discriminated against; he was a very dark-skinned Mexican. He did everything to be totally acculturated into the U.S.”
Huerta’s father, a draftsman for defense contractors, once went looking for a home in a well-to-do neighborhood for his mother-in-law, who was of German descent. At one home he was told they would not sell to a Mexican. “That’s the only time I ever saw my father cry,” Huerta recalls.
His father considered education the avenue his four children could take to achieve the American dream. He exposed them to opera and Shakespeare, and pushed them to earn advanced degrees. Huerta almost didn’t make it. The Catholic high school he attended pulled students not only from the low-income South Central neighborhood, but from the more affluent Palos Verdes and Manhattan Beach areas. Students were steered to take certain courses if they were college-bound. Huerta wasn’t on that track. The dean told his father, “Your kid will flunk out of geometry if we let him take it,” Huerta recalls. “My dad said, ‘That’s OK. It will be his fault.’” Huerta passed.
His interest in law was sparked in high school. He took issue with a controversial documentary the school screened about a prominent Communist instigating a riot. This was during the late McCarthy era, and Huerta learned that the film had been spliced together to tell an inaccurate story. He wanted to write an op-ed piece expressing his opposition to the film but ran into resistance. “[School administrators] told me they didn’t want me to run the piece, that they would kick me out of school,” he says. “I called their bluff and said I would have the ACLU sue them—even though I didn’t know a single lawyer.”
The threat worked. The op-ed ran and he stayed in school. “That sent me a message that being a lawyer is pretty powerful,” he says.
At California State University at Los Angeles, Huerta earned a degree in government, served as student body president, started a folk music society and delivered the commencement address. In law school at the University of California, Berkeley, he was even busier. He was associate editor of the California Law Review, helped found the campus’s first Latino student organization and lobbied for affirmative-action considerations in school admittance decisions—all while maintaining a high GPA.
Philip Jimenez was a year behind Huerta and today teaches law at Santa Clara University. “There were only three of us,” recalls Jimenez of the Latino activists. “John wasn’t a rabble-rouser in the classic sense. He went about his business quietly, but he was tenacious.” The following year, the law school admitted 10 Latinos.
After graduation, Huerta served a fellowship in Peru, working on agrarian reform and water rights issues. Returning to the United States, he practiced law at California Rural Legal Assistance, specializing in landlord-tenant disputes and family law, and the Defenders Program of San Diego, where he represented more than 90 clients. While completing a fellowship at Harvard Law, he got a call from Drew Days III, who had been appointed assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department by President Jimmy Carter. Days needed a deputy. “I thought he would be a perfect fit,” recalls Days, the former U.S. solicitor general under President Bill Clinton and now a professor at Yale University’s School of Law.
At the DOJ, Days and Huerta worked on a case that became one of the most influential international human rights decisions in U.S. courts. In 1980, the 2nd Circuit allowed Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, a case brought by a Paraguayan doctor living in Brooklyn against a former Paraguayan police official who years before had tortured and killed the doctor’s son. The decision cited a 1789 law, the Alien Tort Statute, which gives federal district courts jurisdiction in any civil action brought by an alien if the action violated the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. (The law was originally enacted with pirates in mind, Days says.) The Justice Department wrote an amicus brief. “We took it as one of our responsibilities to monitor what was going on in the human rights field,” Days says. “John was very involved in that process.”
Filartiga has since been used to bring cases in U.S. courts against dictators, including Ferdinand Marcos, Guatemalan generals and Serbian war criminals, among others.
Leaving the federal government after four years, Huerta took a job as associate counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF) in Los Angeles. In this role, he brought class action employment discrimination claims on behalf of minority employees of supermarket chains and spoke out for the voting rights of Latinos.
“John is one of those people who is passionate about our country’s sometimes elusive commitment to equal protection under the laws for all people,” says Vilma Martinez, who was MALDEF’s president and general counsel at the time, and is now a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson. “He was able to connect with all the really diverse constituents that MALDEF had, whether it was the poor, uneducated person who desperately needed representation or the very sophisticated professor who needed representation or the corporate leaders from whom we sought money.”
It is Huerta’s ability to communicate with people from all backgrounds, says Martinez, that has made him such a natural fit for the Smithsonian.
From his perch in the Smithsonian Castle, Huerta is the legal watchdog for some of the nation’s most prized treasures—from Yuan Dynasty porcelain vases and Byzantine biblical manuscripts to meteorite collections and 35 million insect specimens. Huerta leads a staff of 10 attorneys who are asked to provide counsel on any manner of legal questions.
“He [seems] like a kid in a candy store,” says Days. “Fascinating issues arise on a daily basis.”
Huerta spends much of his time helping collectors donate valuables to the organization. A number of things can complicate the process. For example, Dr. Paul Singer lived with a $65 million collection of Chinese art and artifacts in a twobedroom apartment in New Jersey until his death in 1997. “He gave us the collection as a gift, but he didn’t transfer the items to us,” Huerta says. After Singer was hospitalized in the last month of his life, 162 Chinese art objects disappeared from the apartment. To this day, they have not been found. “Had he given them to us before he died, we would not have had this problem,” he says.
Huerta also gets involved in international deals. In 2002 his staff brokered the return of Taino Indian bone fragments to Cuba, from where they had been removed in the early 1900s. He explains that the repatriation of remains was started by an act of Congress, after the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004, insisted that remains be returned to indigenous communities throughout the Western Hemisphere.
“Our national museum doesn’t want to have any native bones on display because [Native Americans] feel that makes the place unholy,” he says.
Huerta has even dabbled in entertainment law, which led to his testimony in May 2006 before Congress. The Smithsonian sought to increase public knowledge of its vast collections by entering into an agreement with Showtime Networks to produce video programming for Smithsonian on Demand, a cable channel that launched in 2007.
Congressional officials challenged the Smithsonian’s right to enter into the agreement. U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, former chairman of the Committee on House Administration, called a hearing “to ensure that no filmmaker, scholar or any other individual whose goal is to use and foster educational awareness of the Smithsonian is inhibited in making use of the resources.” Huerta and other Smithsonian officials testified that the contract will not impede the vast majority of entertainment and research work involving the collections, which satisfied the committee.
The Institution’s 19 museums and nine research centers are partially supported by federal funds and are overseen by a board of regents comprising representatives of the executive, judiciary and legislative branches. Among the members of the board are Chief Justice John Roberts, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Patrick Leahy. Huerta serves as the group’s legal adviser; politics, he insists, stays off the agenda. “I think the Smithsonian has been successful over a long period of time because it is nonpartisan,” he says.
Sitting at his conference table, Huerta agrees with his friend Days; he does feel like a kid in a candy store. The work is rigorous but fascinating. And when he does feel the need to unwind, he has the perfect remedy resting on a stand near his desk.
“That’s mine,” he says, pointing to his banjeaurine, a type of banjo. “I got my first one while in high school.” And like everything at the Smithsonian, this banjeaurine has a history.
The Whyte Laydie No. 2 is one of about 100 in existence. One of the former owners of the instrument, Reed Martin, told Huerta he bought the instrument from a woman in Boston, who said that it once belonged to her significant other, John Reed, the American Communist who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World and was the subject of Warren Beatty’s film Reds. When told this story, Huerta had recently returned from Moscow (part of a Smithsonian Institution cultural tour), where he says, “I had just been at John Reed’s grave in the Kremlin.”
Being part of history is one of the perks of working for the Smithsonian.
“There isn’t a single day that goes by at the Smithsonian that I don’t learn something new,” he says. “No day is like any other. I am constantly challenged and I love it.”