Diverse judges share paths to bench, advise young lawyers

March 2016 | Around the Midyear Meeting

A group of judges provided an up-close look at one way the leadership of the nation’s courts is changing: It is becoming more diverse — albeit a somewhat deliberate pace.

More attorneys of color are being named to the bench but the make-up of the federal judiciary still does not closely resemble that of the overall population. A 2014 Congressional Research Service report said 16.7 percent of judges on the Circuit Court bench are men of color, while 6.8 percent are women of color. In U.S. District Court, 15.4 percent are men of color and 9.8 percent are women of color.

During an American Bar Association Midyear Meeting panel, “Demystifying Diversity in the Judicial System,” members of the ABA Young Lawyers Division heard about the personal journeys of four diverse judges and got some pointers should they ever seek a judicial appointment themselves.

Moderator J. Michelle Childs, a U.S. District Court judge in South Carolina, described the members of the group as “not very connected politically” and succeeding largely “through merit and hard work.”

She asked the jurists to describe their path to the bench and the challenges they faced along the way.

  • Sunshine Sykes, the first Native American judge appointed to a Superior Court seat in Riverside County, Calif., was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jerry Brown. As an appointee, she only had to run for election if she were to be challenged — and she was. Sykes, a member of the Navajo Nation who was born in a small town on a reservation, said her opponent chose to run only because she was a Native American and “therefore not qualified to serve on the bench.” She received both her undergraduate degree and her law degree from Stanford University and previously held the position of deputy county counsel in Riverside. Sykes said she often visits elementary schools in an effort to help build a pipeline to the legal profession.

  • Jacqueline Nguyen, the first Asian-American female federal judge in California, now serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. She also is the first Vietnamese-American woman to serve on the federal bench, having fled Vietnam with her family at the age of 10 when the Saigon government fell in 1975. A graduate of UCLA Law, she was honored with an ABA Spirit of Excellence Award for her commitment to diversity in the legal profession. Nguyen said a “dose of good luck” was the main factor in her becoming a judge. She had many mentors who urged her to “step outside my comfort zone” and to get out and meet people, “which is completely against my nature.” The opportunity for an appointment also came at a time when there was a real need for diversity on the California bench. “You can plan and plan and plan and it may never happen,” she said.

  • Irma Gonzalez, the first Latina of Mexican-American heritage to be named to the federal bench, said her mother received her GED at the age of 40 and her father was an orphan who was raised by his grandmother. He went on to attend Stanford and became a surgeon, later sending “a clear message to all seven of his kids that they were going to get an education and do well.” Like Sykes, Gonzalez did her undergraduate work at Stanford, but later returned to her home state to attend the University of Arizona Law School. She also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Arizona in the criminal prosecution division. As with Nguyen, there was “lots of luck involved” in Gonzalez being named to a judgeship. “Being in the right place at the right time helped,” she said. “You also had to network” because the selection process to the federal bench “can be rather political.” Although she feels she “never really faced implicit bias,” Gonzalez said she “always had to work extra hard because I knew there were some who believed I had been appointed as a token.”

  • David Rubin, an openly gay judge on the San Diego County Superior Court bench, served as a prosecutor for 20 years in the county district attorney’s Office. He said he has not faced overt bias during his time as a judge but experienced some while seeking the judgeship, which required him to run for election.  Rubin is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the University of San Francisco Law School. He has been a volunteer speaker at San Diego Police Department LGBT sensitivity training and serves as a mentor to gay law students. “Diversity on the bench is critical,” Rubin said, and pointed to the California Supreme Court as the “exception rather than the rule. It is majority non white, majority female and no white males.”

The moderator, U.S. District Court Judge Michelle Childs, who is African-American, said change is certainly on the way.

She recently denied a motion from a lawyer arguing in her court, and he responded by saying: “I’ve been doing it this way for 30 years.”

“And I said, well, there’s a new sheriff in town.”