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New Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Mary Murguia discusses her past and the court’s future

She spoke with attorneys about her path to becoming chief judge of the Ninth Circuit, and about her plans for the next seven years at the helm of the nation's largest appellate court.

(CN) — As the Ninth Circuit emerges from two years of pandemic-induced isolation, its newest presiding judge told a group of roughly 60 lawyers that she is ready for the court to get back to doing business in-person.

“I think decorum is important, especially during this time. Going back to court during these challenging times of divisiveness in our country, I think it's really important to do that,” said Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Murguia, who took the helm from Judge Sidney Thomas on Dec. 1, 2021.

The court has been livestreaming arguments in all of its cases since 2014, so it was in a good position to pivot to full remote video when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Murguia said Zoom video arguments were “not as good as in person, but effective for us to get through the pandemic.”

She said infrastructure challenges are a persistent concern, even as the court is considering making the option to appear remotely a permanent feature. “We weren’t set up for that prior to the pandemic and its taken quite a toll on our IT and audio/video people,” Murguia said. “They’ve done extraordinary work under the most challenging times, but we already needed updates and enhancements to our IT just to maintain what we have, and to try to advance that is going to be a big challenge.”

Murguia spoke remotely from her home in Phoenix as part of an hour-long interview series hosted by San Francisco’s Bar Association and moderated by Ben Feuer, chairman of the California Appellate Law Group LLP.

As chief judge of the nation’s largest federal appeals court, Murguia’s duties are largely administrative. But she also presides over all major cases that are heard en banc by a panel of 11 judges, usually convened to resolve a split in the circuit or when an issue is deemed to be exceptionally important.

Murguia was chosen by virtue of being the most senior judge on the court who hasn’t yet turned 65. She is the second woman and first Latina to hold the position.

“I realize that I’m not elected or appointed, but I also recognize it’s a tremendous responsibility and I'm very humbled by it, and I hope to do the best job I can to lead the court,” she said.

She said her seven-year term will also focus on stamping out workplace harassment in the federal judiciary. The court faced a reckoning on that front after sexual harassment allegations forced former chief judge Alex Kozinski to take an early retirement. U.S. Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown, a Bill Clinton appointee who recently announced she would be taking senior status, led a committee that made recommendations on how the judiciary could combat harassment and investigate complaints.

Its work culminated in changes to how the court resolves workplace disputes and the hiring of a workplace relations director, which Murguia called "very significant."

"We've made extraordinary strides and we're proud of the reforms that have been put in place and we want to continue that," Murguia said. "We can't just have tolerance for judges' inappropriate behavior which includes sexual harassment."

Clinton appointed Murguia, 61, to the federal court for the District of Arizona in 2000. President Barack Obama appointed her to the Ninth Circuit in 2010.

She began her career as a prosecutor in her hometown of Kansas City, Kansas, after earning two bachelor’s degrees and her law degree from the University of Kansas.

"It was a remarkable experience. It was a small office, but as a result you are given a lot of responsibility early on and a lot of autonomy in how to conduct your cases and I was given a lot of cases right off the bat. The growth for me as a lawyer in those five years was extraordinary. I just learned so much.”

After five years in Kansas City, she took a job as a federal prosecutor in Phoenix. There she caught the eye of senators John Kyl and John McCain, who were looking to fill a vacancy on the federal bench.

“There were a lot of good lawyers in Arizona and I thought they would be good judges. I never thought it would be me,” she said.

It was a groundbreaking career path for a girl who grew up in 1960’s Kansas, one of seven children raised in a working-class, Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Her mother immigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, and her father, who worked at the local steel plant, was born in Oklahoma but returned to his hometown in Michoacán during the Great Depression.

“A lot of the kids in my neighborhood, their fathers either worked for the railroad, the steel company, or one of the meatpacking companies,” she said. “It was very much a working class neighborhood.”

Her parents instilled a love of books and education in all seven of their children, nearly all of whom went on to graduate from college. Her brother Carlos is a former federal judge and her twin sister Janet is president of the civil rights organization UnidosUS, formerly the National Council of La Raza.

"The example they set of hard work and love of their community and their neighbors and also just a really strong worth ethic I think were really key. Also because they were not able to pursue education — either one of them — their comments on how important education was flowed down to us, and we were able to appreciate how important an education was,” Murguia said.

Murguia said that while her judicial decisions are guided by the law, her working class background also influences how she approaches a case.

“It's part of who you are and how you process the law and the facts. We all probably do a little of that in cases we review. It's hard to divorce your upbringing, your background, who you are, the experiences you've had, but obviously what's driving the result is the law and applying it to the facts," she said. "But I wouldn't say we do this in a sterilized way. It's part of what makes our court system unique.”

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