By Justice Evelyn Keyes, First Court of Appeals and Angela Spoede
The Houston area truly exemplifies the concept of the American melting pot. Our community embraces citizens and immigrants reflecting cultures from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe. More than one hundred languages are spoken in Houston every day, and, by some estimates, Houston is the most diverse city in the United States of America, surpassing even New York and Los Angeles in terms of the variety of cultures represented on our city’s streets.
Our legal system, including our courts, plays a huge role in supporting the coexistence of these various cultures in our society. So, it comes as no surprise that the cases that come before our city’s courts also reflect the rich diversity of ethnicity and culture found here. In recent months, the Houston courts of appeals have addressed issues ranging from a custody dispute between an Indian citizen and an American citizen to a business conflict between former friends and co-owners of an Asian martial arts school, and the dissolution of a family-run Vietnamese business raising chickens, just to name a few. We have adjudicated a custody dispute between parents of Middle Eastern descent, determined the validity of marriages entered into in a Far Eastern country, and resolved numerous issues involving complex business and financial arrangements among immigrants and citizens that touch on Houston’s diverse cultures, whether they be those found relatively close to home, like Latin America, or require us to venture further afield to Europe and beyond. This list does not even begin to touch upon domestic entities who do business here and abroad, providing yet another contact between Houston and other world cultures.
In all of these interactions—despite their differences in underlying facts and legal substance—there is one common thread. Each of these cases requires the court and the attorneys involved to address fundamental conflicts between social or cultural expectations and the legal remedies actually available through the American justice system. Houstonians’ beliefs about their business and personal relationships are influenced by the culture and social norms familiar to them, but those norms are not always perfectly aligned with legally enforceable relationships in American jurisprudence. In many of these cases, parties enter into personal, financial, or business arrangements that may ultimately fail to satisfy their expectations when analyzed in light of American law. What one culture would treat as an enforceable legal contract or a redressable breach of honor, local courts struggle to put into familiar legal terms that line up with causes of action recognized in Texas.
The lesson for lawyers and judges working in this legal melting pot is this: We must make an effort to educate ourselves on the variety of cultural and legal backgrounds that come before us in our practices and learn to translate cultural expectations into understood and agreed upon enforceable legal obligations. And the lesson for culturally diverse litigants is that, early on, they must seek out attorneys who are familiar with the legal system in which they find themselves—attorneys who can address actual and potential conflicts arising out of their native culture, but do so within the framework of American jurisprudence. Only when both attorneys and courts understand the goals and objectives of the litigants in terms readily cognizable in American law can we truly provide the best possible legal advice and maintain the integrity of our legal system in a way that still does justice for the people of Houston, regardless of their cultural background.