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D.C. Bar Remembers Trailblazing Judge Ricardo M. Urbina

July 02, 2024

By Jeremy Conrad

Ricardo Manuel UrbinaThe D.C. Bar pays tribute to former judge Ricardo Manuel Urbina, who blazed paths in the legal community as the first Latino judge on D.C. Superior Court as well as on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Urbina passed away in June at age 78 of Parkinson’s disease.

Urbina began his legal career with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, later going into private practice and serving as faculty at Howard University School of Law. He was nominated to D.C. Superior Court by Ronald Reagan in 1981 and to the D.C. District Court by Bill Clinton in 1994, serving on that court until his retirement in 2012.

“The Superior Court of the District of Columbia mourns the passing of Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, our distinguished colleague from 1981 to 1994,” Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring said in a statement, adding that the late judge “was a deliberate and passionate jurist” whose commitment to civil liberties “was exemplary and his humility as a civil rights icon was inspiring. He will be missed as a leader, a friend, and a dedicated mentor.”

D.C. District Court Chief Judge James E. Boasberg, in a separate statement, paid tribute to Urbina as a role model on and off the bench. “He had a keen sense of fairness, and he was a dedicated, empathetic, and creative jurist,” Boasberg said. “On a personal level, he is remembered throughout the courthouse for his warmth, authenticity, and kindness. He will be missed.”

An Inspiration to Many

Many lawyers benefited from Urbina’s support and mentorship, including D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge Kenia Seoane López, who credits Urbina for encouraging her to pursue a legal career. “I said [to him], ‘I have this fellowship and I want to clerk for you.’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. I would have you here all summer stapling and making copies, and I think you should be doing more than that,’” Seoane López recalls Urbina telling her when they first met in 1997 in his chambers.

So, Seoane López took positions working in Congress and at the U.S. Department of Justice. On reflection, Seoane López said that Urbina was right. “He was very selfless,” she said. “I would have made his coffee and his copies and been happy with that, but he had better aspirations for me, and I was happy about that, after the fact. He was right. [The clerkship] wasn’t a good development position for me that summer.”

Seoane López, a former president of the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia (HBA-DC), continued to benefit from Urbina’s mentorship in subsequent years and observed his impact on others in the Latino legal community. “Judge Urbina has an army of Latino lawyers in the District of Columbia who really owe everything to him,” she said.

Urbina took an active interest in the cultivation of generations of incoming Hispanic attorneys and judges. The HBA-DC recognized his efforts with the establishment of its Hon. Ricardo M. Urbina Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001, presented annually to recognize outstanding contributions to the Hispanic community in the areas of equality, fairness, and social justice.

HBA-DC President Paulina Vera said Urbina was a jurist of “impeccable credentials, who worked tirelessly to ensure equal justice for those in our society most in need, including the Latino community. His legacy will continue to inspire us to be better lawyers and better members of our community.”

Susan Santana, who clerked for Urbina in 1997, said the judge “was a champion in every aspect of life” — in the courtroom where he upheld the rights of those without a voice, in the Latino community as he pushed for more diversity in the legal profession, and in the legal community by mentoring hundreds of young lawyers and law students.

“His example of leading his life by giving to others was unmatched and he will be greatly missed,” Santana said. “He used to say, ‘The pen is a mighty sword. Use it to make the world a better place.’ His legal opinions, his speeches, and his mentorship and advice definitely impacted the legal profession in D.C. in a profound and positive way.”

Thoughtful Approach to Wartime Cases

Many of Urbina’s prominent cases involved issues relating to the detention of accused terrorists. In Omar v. Harvey (2007), Urbina issued an ex parte temporary restraining order preventing the transfer of Shawqi Ahmad Omar, an American citizen captured and detained in Iraq, from American custody to Iraqi authorities. The U.S. Supreme Court later affirmed Urbina’s ruling that U.S. citizens held overseas by American forces are covered by the habeas corpus statute, but also found that habeas provided no relief because it does not require the United States to shelter fugitives from the criminal justice system of sovereigns with the authority to prosecute them.

Urbina also issued rulings in several cases of foreign nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay. In 2008, for example, he ordered the release of 17 Uighur detainees who had been held since 2002, holding that they did not threaten U.S. security.

Urbina’s 2009 dismissal of an indictment against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards accused in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad was reversed by an appeals court, as was the judge’s 2010 ruling upholding the District of Columbia’s gun regulations. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the appeals court’s decision in the latter case.

Urbina stepped down from the bench after more than 30 years of service. Asked about his judicial philosophy during a 2013 interview for a rule of law oral history project at Columbia University, Urbina said it is important for a judge to approach matters in a detached, neutral position.

“I do feel that a judge needs to be able to look at a matter objectively and assess it in a way that meets the mandates of the Constitution. I always feel that the litigants have a right to believe and to take advantage of the fact that the judge is going to apply the law,” Urbina said. “If I decide to take the matter to court, I should feel that the judge is going to apply the law, no matter who he or she is, and the other side should feel the same way.”

Fighting Racial Barriers in Sports

Born to a Honduran father and a Puerto Rican mother, Urbina grew up in New York City. A star athlete in high school — he held the 1,000-meter indoor track record — Urbina had his choice of colleges but decided to attend Georgetown University for both his undergraduate and juris doctor degrees.

At Georgetown, Urbina continued to earn accolades as an athlete, winning the 1966 NCAA Division 1 indoor championship’s 880-yard run. The New York Times referred to his performance as “exceptional under any circumstances,” though a technicality prevented his time from qualifying as a meet record.

While in law school, Urbina was denied membership in the New York Athletic Club, a training ground for college graduates seeking admission to the U.S. Olympic team. He would have been the club’s first Black member. In commentary to the Georgetown student newspaper at the time, Urbina said that his rejection was the result of “a 100-year-old history of discrimination toward Negroes, Jews, and other minorities by the [New York Athletic Club].”

The word spread, prompting a Black athlete boycott of NYAC’s 1968 track meet, a leadup to the Olympics in Mexico City. Six months later, the iconic, black-gloved Olympic podium protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos over the treatment of African Americans by runners was viewed by many as the direct result of Urbina’s rejection. Urbina had missed qualifying to compete in the event by less than a second.

While on the bench, Urbina took up aikido and held a black belt. “It’s one of the very few martial arts that has a ruling ethical component. In other words, you are required to do certain things. In the implementation of aikido, the first rule is you walk away before you fight, and you inflict pain rather than injury,” Urbina said in the 2013 interview, describing the martial art as a “moving meditation.”

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