Frank Torres, a former New York State Supreme Court justice who, as the son of a Family Court jurist and later the father of a federal judge, championed greater Hispanic representation in the legal profession and on the bench, died on Thursday in the Bronx. He was 93.
His death, in a hospital from complications of pneumonia, was confirmed by his daughter Judge Analisa Torres of the United States District Court in Manhattan.
To help increase the proportion of Hispanic lawyers and judges, Justice Torres encouraged high school and college students to study law and lawyers to aspire to judgeships, both elected and appointed. And he publicly called for law firms to cast their nets wider when hiring, and for judicial screening committees to seek out more Hispanic candidates.
In 1991, in an article in The New York State Bar Journal, he complained that with 1.8 million Hispanic people in New York City and 2,000 Hispanic lawyers practicing in the state, there was, conspicuously, not one Hispanic federal judge in New York.
“This absence,” he wrote, was widely seen as “a vestige of American unequal opportunity and racial discrimination.”
His complaint was lodged shortly before Justice John Carro, who had been the first Puerto Rican named to the Appellate Division in New York, withdrew his name from consideration as a federal judge. He had been nominated by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, but the Republican administration of President George H.W. Bush had sat on the nomination for several years.
When Justice Carro withdrew, though, Senator Moynihan’s judicial selection committee was ready with a replacement: another judge from the Bronx, Sonia Sotomayor, who was confirmed, and who later became the first Hispanic jurist to sit on the United States Supreme Court.
Justice Torres had seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, Felipe, who in 1953 was among the first Puerto Ricans elected to the New York State Assembly and a decade later was appointed to the Family Court.
The elder Mr. Torres represented his South Bronx constituents in Albany from 1952 to 1961, when he retired. His son Frank succeeded him, elected as an insurgent.
Eduardo Padro, a retired justice of the State Supreme Court, the highest trial court in New York, said of Justice Torres in a phone interview: “What distinguished him was a basic humanity. When I came in, I was an outsider, a rock thrower. I did not envision myself as a player until I had the opportunity to work with him and gained a newfound respect for the bench.”
Justice Padro, who had been a law clerk for Justice Torres, said he had made it an article of faith “that the Puerto Rican community, the Latino community, that people of color had the right to aspire — that those who never considered the law had a right to aspire to a career in it, and those that were in the law had a right to aspire to the judiciary.”
Frank Torres was born on Jan. 25, 1928, in Manhattan to parents who had immigrated from Puerto Rico. His father, Felipe Torres, a lawyer who practiced in East Harlem, was appointed to the bench by Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. His mother was Felipe Torres’s first wife, Flerida Barrios, a homemaker.
Frank’s sister, Aida, was raised by their mother, but when Frank was 4½, he moved in with his father and his second wife, Inocencia Bello de Torres, with whom Felipe Torres had three more children.
Judge Analisa Torres said that her grandfather “imprinted upon my father the principle that Latinos who have been afforded the opportunity to obtain a higher education are morally obligated to advocate for the rights of the Spanish-speaking community.”
Frank studied violin at the Manhattan School of Music (as a teenager he played first violin in a youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall) and graduated from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.
He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology from the City College of New York in 1951 and a law degree from St. John’s University Law School in 1955. He took law classes at night; during the day he was an investigator and interviewer for the city’s welfare department.
In 1950 he married Yolanda Marquez Torres, who became a psychology professor at City College. After she died in 2013, he moved to Pittsburgh to live with his daughter Andrea Mahone, a retired teacher.
In addition to Ms. Mahone and Judge Analisa Torres, who was nominated to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2013, he is survived by a son, Ramon; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Pamela, died of leukemia when she was 4; a day care center in the Bronx founded by Justice Torres and his wife was named in her memory.
After law school, Justice Torres served as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. He was a founder of the Ponce de Leon Federal Savings Bank in New York (known as the Ponce Bank), one of the first banking institutions specifically established to serve the Hispanic population. During his one term in the Assembly (he was defeated in a re-election bid in 1964), he fought for the elimination of English literacy tests for Puerto Rican voters. The tests were eventually banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“He was serious, concerned, but soft-spoken,” said Murray Richman, the wily Bronx defense lawyer famous locally as “Don’t Worry Murray.” He added that Justice Torres “was involved in every single major Hispanic group that existed in the ’60s and ’70s.”
After his stint in the Assembly, Justice Torres worked 15 years in the New York office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he rose to director of civil rights and equal opportunity. Mayor Edward I. Koch appointed him to the Family Court in 1980.
He served in the criminal court as an acting Supreme Court justice and was elected to the Supreme Court in 1987. He served until 2001.
Even on the bench, Justice Torres continued to lobby for the appointment and election of more Hispanic judges. He was instrumental in founding what became known as the Latino Judges Association.
Carlos Cuevas, a former city clerk and a friend of Justice Torres’s since they were Boy Scouts in East Harlem, said of him, “He was concerned about the guy on the street, and whether he got a fair trial.”
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