LOS ANGELES (CN) – Kiry Gray’s incredible rise began when, at her late mother’s urging, she turned down a job at manufacturing company Rockwell to take a temporary job in the Los Angeles Federal Court’s Spring Street location in 1985.
Thirty years later, the 54-year-old created history last month by becoming the first black woman to be named clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
Over the decades, Gray learned her trade in the court’s offices and corridors, impressing her supervisors with her dedication early in her career.
Her boss and court executive Sherri Carter rewarded her strong work ethic by quickly promoting her to the criminal section, where she became assistant supervisor in 1987.
In 1990, she became assistant deputy-in-charge of the Southern Division in Santa Ana and later deputy-in-charge of the Eastern Division in Riverside.
Her journey came full circle when she interviewed for the clerk position earlier this year and faced a panel of judges as well as Carter.
“When I walked into the room I almost gasped,” Gray said.
She commutes on the Metrolink every day from her San Bernardino County home in Colton, but does not stay idle during the 90-minute journey – using it as an opportunity to work and answer email.
Gray was born in Flint, Michigan. Her father served in the military and then the post office while her mother was also a post office worker.
She moved to California when she was two years old, later attending James Monroe High School in San Fernando Valley.
Gray lives with her husband of 33 years, Joseph Gray – a postal worker – her daughter Chelsea, an honor-roll high school student, and her nephew, Malachi Malaka. Her first child, Joshua, is a fire department captain in Forth Worth, Texas.
The new clerk is about to become a grandmother and said Joshua plans on naming the baby Justin Alexander Gray or as the clerk already affectionately calls him, “Baby JAG.”
Courthouse News caught up this week with Gray at her office in downtown LA, where a congratulations banner was still hanging from the wall above a conference table.
Gray said she had no plans to redecorate her office, for two reasons. First, she prefers spending her time outside the office talking to her staff and taking meetings. Second, next year the court will move to a new federal building in LA’s civic center.
As she sat down behind her desk, Gray admitted that interviews are her “least favorite thing to do.”
“I’m a person who likes to remain behind the scenes,” said Gray, adding, “It’s just an honor, truly an honor to be here.”
How does it feel to be appointed Clerk of the Court?
“It’s been an amazing journey and this was certainly something that was not on my bucket list. I started off here 30 years ago and I went to Santa Ana, and worked there and went to open up the doors in Riverside – started that from ground zero – and now I’m back here where I started. So it’s been an amazing journey.”
You started in this building on Spring Street as a temporary worker?
“I started out as a temporary worker, coding jury questionnaires at night. Then I went to the interpreter section. From the interpreter section I went to Central Violations Bureau and from Central Violations Bureau I finally landed a job in the appeals section. And I went to the appeals section and worked there for a couple of years, or maybe a year or so, and Sherri Carter came to me and said ‘Kiry, I need you to work the criminal intake window.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about the criminal intake window. She said, ‘Hey, I need you to go. You’re quick and I’ve been following you. You’re a quick study.'”
Did you ever imagine that one day you would be clerk of a Federal Court that serves 19.6 million people – close to half California’s population?
“Never, never. In fact, even though you go through it in school and you take your government classes, a lot of people still don’t know what Federal Court represents. And so when I took a job here I remember Rockwell had offered me a permanent position. And my mom said to me, ‘You know what? Those places like Rockwell and Boeing, it’s contract-driven. So, as soon as the contract goes away you may be laid off.’ She said, ‘So why don’t you go to the Federal Court where they offer you this temporary position, and do a good job. You go there, do a good job, they will recognize your good work and your work ethic.’ And that’s what I did and I’m here 30 years later.’ (She gestures upwards) So, ‘Hey Mom!'”
You were made acting clerk in July when Terry Nafisi left. Were you confident you’d get the job?
“No and in fact when I was asked I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ So later on, the staff and everybody kept saying ‘Kiry, please, can you apply for this position?’ I said, ‘You know, I love Riverside. I’m eight miles from my house. I’m not going to apply for the job.'”
What changed your mind?
“As the pressure kept mounting and kept mounting, I kept getting asked and finally at the last minute, the last hour, I surrendered and I put my application in. And then I was later told I had an interview. So when I went to the interview I thought every judge in the courthouse was on that panel – the conference table looked like it went all the way back to Riverside! And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I must really love this court to be doing this.'”
Where were you when you learned the news?
“I was actually on a business trip in Minneapolis attending a court technology conference.”
How did you feel?
“I finally make it back to my [hotel] room and Chief Judge (George) King calls and says ‘Kiry, it was a unanimous vote across the board and all the judges decided that we want you as clerk of court. And all I could do was cry. I just sat there and thought ‘Oh my goodness. [Her voice wavers]. I’ll never forget it. Chief Judge King, he speaks so well and he’s such a remarkable speaker and so all I could do was sit there and he was like, ‘Kiry? Kiry? Are you still there?’ I said: ‘I can’t talk right now.'” (She laughs).
You’re the first African-American woman to serve as clerk of the California Central District Court. That’s a pretty big deal.
“My son sent me a text email and I think this is when it brought it all home to me. He said, ‘You know Mom, I just stopped to tell you that during my whole life I never saw you walk on anybody for a promotion – you always treated people with dignity and respect.’ And he said, ‘Now I’m seeing the fruits of your labor and I’m very proud of you, Mom.’ And so that to me made this journey all worthwhile.”
You must have seen your share of interesting cases come through the court. Any standouts?
“I was in Riverside for a long time so the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was with Judge Virginia Phillips (Phillips found the policy that banned military service by openly gay service members unconstitutional in 2010). I think that case really stands out for me … I remember every time I turned on the news and they’d talk about don’t ask, don’t tell. You know, change. That’s what I remember about that case and I remember all the long hours that Judge Phillips put into that. Every case she handled with the same amount of dignity and respect.”
Your job must be demanding. How do you blow off steam?
“I know some people may take it as a negative but I have a Harley and love going motorcycle riding with friends and family. I love reading. Actually, my favorite thing to do is spend time with family, and believe it or not I just crocheted, made my first baby blanket. I never thought I’d be doing something like that. I thought, ‘Oh my God, me and a baby blanket.’ You know a lot of times we don’t get a whole lot of down time with this job because there’s a lot of travel, a lot of responsibilities and 24/7 you’re on call. But life is great. Life is a beautiful thing and you cannot let it pass you by.”
What kind of Harley do you have?
“A Street Glide. I don’t know if I even want that in the paper! I enjoy that but I don’t know if the court wants this little Harley rider riding around. I would never, ever ride it to work or anything like that.”
How do you feel about the challenge ahead?
“I’m just delighted to serve. All I want to do is serve. That’s my job, to serve and make California Central the best. We are big. One of the biggest. I’m looking forward to a positive relationship. Again, I’ve been here 30 years, so I’m no stranger to Federal Court. I started here in Los Angeles and never thought I’d return. But I’m delighted because not only do I enjoy working with the entire court family, they enjoy working with me as well.”
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