Roberto Nájera: Cutting-edge public defender

May 02, 2011

By Andrea Cohen 

Roberto Nájera

Roberto Nájera has dedicated his career to providing outstanding legal representation for low-income clients.

He is best known for successfully arguing a landmark statute-of-limitations case before the U.S. Supreme Court. After 30 years as an attorney and 20 years in the Public Defenders Office, Nájera recently retired to pursue other interests.

The fifth of six children, Nájera grew up in a working class family in the coastal town of Davenport, just 10 miles north of Santa Cruz. After graduating from UCSC (earning honors in sociology and Merrill College honors), he obtained a law degree from Harvard. Nájera began his legal career with La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco, briefly went into private practice, then joined the Legal Aid Society of Marin County and Legal Aid Society of Contra Costa County. In 1989, he went to work for the Contra Costa County Public Defenders Office. In 2003, Nájera argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that ultimately overturned a 1994 California statute-of-limitations law, freeing many who had been unconstitutionally convicted. In 2004, Nájera's work was recognized with the prestigious Kutak-Dodds Prize from the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association. He was also named Public Defender of the Year by the California Public Defenders Association. Nájera received the 2004-05 Alumni Achievement Award.

Nájera says he still gets very nostalgic each time he visits UCSC. "I had a wonderful time there and got a great education. The UCSC faculty were top notch—I'd put my Santa Cruz education up against Harvard anytime." Nájera has another ongoing UCSC connection—his sister, Olga Nájera-Ramírez, is now professor of anthropology at UCSC.

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