Leticia Marquez

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Leticia Marquez, a federal public defense attorney, is a bit nervous this weekend as she preps for a Tuesday court case. It will be unlike any case she's had before.

She'll stand in front of nine jurists - the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's a real big deal," said Marquez last week in a telephone call from Washington, D.C., where she is preparing her case. That's an understatement.

It's historic for this University of Arizona graduate and daughter of Mexican immigrants.

Marquez, 43, might be the first Tucson Latina attorney to argue a case before the highest court in the country. Nationally, she could be the 16th Latina in history, according to a February article in the National Law Journal.

Beyond being a Latina, it's rare for a Tucson-based attorney to give oral augments before the Supreme Court.

So it is a really big deal. And it's nerve-wracking.

"I'm so nervous," confessed Marquez, who will have 20 minutes to argue her appeal in the case of Ernest Valencia Gonzales, who stabbed a Phoenix man to death when he was caught burglarizing the victim's town house in 1990. At issue is whether death-row inmates can place their federal appeal on hold if they are mentally incompetent to assist their lawyers.

Marquez sounds like a bride before the big day - an attorney friend suggested to the single Marquez that Tuesday might feel that way. But the best advice she has received is to relax and enjoy the historic day.

"I'm focused," she said.

Known to her friends and co-workers as Letty, Marquez is not the only attorney in her family. Her sister, Rosemary Marquez, was a public defender before entering private practice.

(Rosemary Marquez was nominated as a federal judge by President Obama in June 2011, but her appointment has been held up in the U.S. Senate by outgoing Sen. Jon Kyl.)

Letty Marquez and her younger sister were born in Los Angeles to Miguel Marquez, a construction worker, and Catalina Marquez, a custodian, from Sonora.

When Letty was a high school senior the family moved to Bisbee to be closer to their Sonoran family and, more important, to give the Marquez girls a shot at a college education.

"My motivation to go to college and law school was first and foremost to better myself and my family. My mother, especially, stressed the importance of an education as a means to have more financial stability than they did," said Marquez.

She graduated from UA law school in 1995. In law school she didn't know what area she would focus on, although she knew she would champion a social issue.

That social cause became defending individuals charged with murder. She found her calling while working for capital defense attorney Carla Ryan.

"She was one of my best students," said Ryan, who has argued before the World Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

Defending people charged with murder is unpopular with many people, but for Marquez it's a highly principled cause.

"She believes in her heart that it's morally wrong that the U.S. is one of the few countries, along with Mideast countries and China, to practice the death penalty," said Tucson attorney Louis Hollingsworth.

Dale Baich, a colleague at the federal defender's office for more than 10 years, wrote, "Letty, at her core, is committed to the principles of fairness and justice. This fundamentally shapes her efforts to ensure that her clients' constitutional rights are defended and protected."

Marquez prefers not to discuss in public her position on the death penalty. She prefers to make her arguments in court.

She also was in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004, but as a co-counsel and did not present the case.

As she walks up the steps of the Supreme Court building and into the history-filled courtroom, Marquez anticipates much will be on her mind.

She'll think about the journey she and her parents and sister took. She'll think about her mentors, co-workers and friends.

But most of all she'll be thinking of her client, she said. "This case will affect so many others."

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com