Isidore Torres, Trailblazing Hispanic Judge in Michigan, Dies at 73

Isidore Torres, Trailblazing Hispanic Judge in Michigan, Dies at 73

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

As a boy, Isidore Torres owned two pairs of pants: one for school, one for hoeing sugar beet fields outside Bay City, Mich., alongside his mother and siblings.

“If you could hold a hoe, you were out there working from sunrise until 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” an older brother, Abel Torres, said.

For years, the family had shuttled between Michigan and Texas looking for migrant work, eventually settling in Bay City so the children could receive a steady education.

Mr. Torres never forgot his humble roots, even as he became the first Hispanic judge in the Wayne County court system and served on state benches for more than a quarter-century. A prominent figure among Michigan Latinos, known for an endearing smile and a love of coffee, he had the ear of mayors, governors and congressmen as he lobbied for more minority representation in the legal system.

“He wanted the bench to reflect the community,” said Maria L. Oxholm, who with his support became the first Hispanic female judge in the Wayne County system when she was appointed to the 36th District Court, which handles misdemeanors and some civil litigation for the Detroit area. She now serves on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

“He was relentless about always talking about opportunities for Latinos in the community,” Judge Oxholm said. “There was not one lunch or meeting where he did not bring it up.”

Mr. Torres died on Jan. 12 at Beaumont Hospital in Troy, Mich. He was 73. The cause was Covid-19, his family said. He also had central nervous system lymphoma.

“My father always had to fight for the life that he wanted,” said his son, Felipe Barboza Torres, a Wayne County prosecutor. “No one ever told him that he would be a great lawyer. They told him he wouldn’t be able to be a lawyer because he was brown.”

In addition to his son and his brother Abel, Mr. Torres is survived by his wife, Goharik Karian Torres, and their daughter, Marissa Savitski; another daughter, Laura Torres, from his first marriage, to Elizabeth Garza; five grandchildren; two other brothers, John and Eduardo; and a sister, Marina Perez.

Isidoro Barboza Torres was born on Dec. 13, 1947, in San Antonio. (He later Americanized his first name to Isidore.) His father, Valentin Ovalle Torres, was an itinerant roofer from the Mexican state of Coahuila. His mother, Francisca Barboza Torres, was from Texas. They had seven children, one of whom died in infancy.

Mr. Torres graduated from Bay City Central High School in 1966 and pursued a legal education, against the advice of a guidance counselor who suggested he learn a trade. He graduated from Michigan State University in 1973 with a focus on criminal justice and earned a law degree in 1976 from Wayne State University.

Mr. Torres’s first job was at Neighborhood Legal Services in Detroit. After several years as a top lawyer for the city, he co-founded the law firm Torres & Horvath.

His judicial career began in 1983, when he was appointed a magistrate on the 36th District Court. Later that year he was elevated to district judge on the same court, becoming one of Michigan’s first Hispanic judges.

He rose to the Wayne County Circuit Court, one of the busiest in the country, and handled first criminal and then civil cases until retiring in 2010. In addition to holding with many volunteer positions and serving on many boards, he was a president of the Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan, which he had helped found in 1991.

“He was a reminder to me always that you don’t just get to go off and be a judge and hear your cases,” said Denise Page Hood, who served on the same bench as Mr. Torres earlier in her career and is now chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. “You have to still be committed to advancing progress in the area of the law and in the judiciary.”

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