Pioneer Hispanic federal judge from Elgin retires
Federal court Judge Manuel Barbosa likes to say that one of the best things that happened to him during his 14-year judgeship was getting to shake the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln.
One of the worst, he says, came in dealing with people, many of them Hispanic, who were blindsided by the foreclosures spawned by the recent housing crisis.
A resident of Elgin since childhood, Barbosa in 1998 became the first Hispanic bankruptcy judge to serve in the U.S. Northern District of Illinois. He retired on Friday.
Barbosa, 65, said he met a Princeton University professor who shook the hand of a man who at age 4 had shaken hands with Honest Abe. Another career highlight was meeting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan when she was dean of Harvard Law School.
"I always tell those stories to students," he said.
Though people may think of bankruptcy court as staid or boring, it often is about real, human suffering, Barbosa said.
"It's a lot more interesting than I had expected," he said. "The image that a lot of people have ... is that it's a lot of paper shuffling and figures and accounting. But it touches on a lot of lives of people. With individuals, often it's a mater of their future, their livelihood. Even with companies, you often have a large number of employees whose livelihoods might be at stake."
Sometimes there are good outcomes, such as when companies are able to reorganize and survive bankruptcy, he said.
But there are also limits to how much the court system can help honest, but unfortunate, people, he said.
"It's difficult sometimes when you see the suffering that people are undergoing, and there is only so much you can do," he said.
One particular case involving a Ponzi scheme early in his career stands out.
"A lot people lost their life savings, their kids' college money. One woman was in tears, saying, 'That's what we were saving for our kids' college,'" he said.
His courtroom was particularly busy during the foreclosure crisis that hit in 2008, which disproportionately affected Latinos.
"Perhaps the more notable thing is that a lot of (Latinos) didn't seem to really know what was going on. It's one thing when you're in a financial bind but you kind of understood how you got there. A lot of times these people seemed to be totally befuddled."
Before becoming a judge, Barbosa worked as a private practice lawyer and served as chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission from its creation in 1980 to 1998. He also worked as an assistant state's attorney in Kane County for about 1½ years, he said.
Retirement will allow him to do things he couldn't do as a judge, he said.
"I want to be involved with several nonprofit efforts," said Barbosa, who founded the Club Guadalupano of Elgin scholarship program for college-bound Latino students. "When you're on bench, you cannot solicit money for funding. I felt kind of hamstrung by that."
He also wants to devote more time to what he called a "sort of autobiographical writing project" that traces the history of his family to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Barbosa came to the U.S. when he was just 2 months old. His family first lived on a cotton farm by the Texas border, then migrated to Nebraska and eventually settled in Elgin when he was 10.
Barbosa attended St. Edward High School in Elgin, the former St. Procopius College — now Benedictine University — and The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
He's looking forward to attending more lectures — in history mostly, but also politics and anthropology — at the University of Chicago, and do more speaking engagements here and in Mexico, he said.
He hopes to get picked to volunteer next month for judicial reform training in Lima, Peru. He also serves on the board of visitors for Northern Illinois University's College of Law.
Barbosa said he wished there was more help for people facing bankruptcy, such as more legal aid pro bono services and more help desks like the one in downtown Chicago's bankruptcy court. He also lauded Kane County Chief Judge Judy Brawka's plan for a new foreclosure mediation process.
"People are always trying to come up with new ways to help the public," he said. "That is the goal."
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