Three Jurists Reflect on Their Unconventional Paths to the Bench

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lucy Armendariz, U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria and California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar took different paths to the bench. Their stories may inspire future jurists.

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(CN) — Judge Maria Lucy Armendariz never told her story to anyone before she was elected to the Los Angeles Superior Court bench in 2018.

“Childhood for me was hardly idyllic,” Armendariz said as she recalled growing up in East Los Angeles with a mother sentenced to life in prison when she was just eight years old. Armendariz was raised in foster homes, and as she grew closer to aging out of the system, she knew she needed a plan. “Back in those days they would just kick you out at age 18 so I knew early on that I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life,” she said.

College for Armendariz was a life line, but she didn’t plan to get into law. “For me it was a survival tactic. For the first time in my life I knew where I was going to live for the next four years, I knew I was going to eat three meals a day. It was just a place to be. Law school was another place to go for three years after undergrad.”

Armendariz spoke as part a panel on “untraditional pathways to the bench” hosted by the American Constitutional Society as part of an initiative to diversify the judicial profession with people representing a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

“Sometimes our path may not be the direction that others think you’re supposed to do to get the job you want,” moderator Tanya Pellegrini, a civil and voting rights attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said. “I always tell law clerks that they don’t have to follow any path to get to what their dream is. Everyone’s path is unique.”

Armendariz was joined by U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria, whose parents emigrated from India and Quebec, and California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who grew up in Matamoros, Mexico, and walked across the border every day to attend school in Brownsville, Texas. before his family moved to the Imperial Valley when he was 14.

Fresh out of law school, Cuéllar said he didn’t know where he was going to end up but wanted to do something related to public service. Considering a job with the U.S. Treasury Department, he asked a professor for advice. The professor warned him not to take a job that didn’t involve doing some kind of litigation or he would never be a judge.

“He said, ‘If you want to be a judge, don’t take that job.’ Well I took that job. But I had in the back of my mind I guess I’ll never be a judge. I guess I’ll do something else.”

For years afterward, Cuéllar would feel wistful whenever he read “really cool dissents” penned by jurists. 
“I thought that would be a fascinating life to be a guardian, to make sure peoples’ rights were honored. I just thought the opportunity would never come until someone from the governor’s office called many years later.”

Chhabria, who started out “doing mostly white collar criminal stuff” with Keker & Van Nest in San Francisco, said he unthinkingly applied for a job with the U.S. Attorney’s Office because it felt like the “natural next step to do for a young associate who did white collar work.” When he didn’t hear back for months, he decided to join the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office.

“I stumbled upon the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, particularly the government litigation team,” Chhabria said. At the time, the city was adopting a number of ground-breaking policies. “One of the things that I got to defend was San Francisco’s universal health care program,” he said.

Not hearing from the U.S. Attorney’s Office gave him time to reflect on why he joined the legal profession. “That was probably one of the best thing that happened to me,” Chhabria said.

Had he been interested in being a judge back then, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would have been the more traditional route. But by the time President Barack Obama was elected to his second term, his administration was starting to focus on nominating judges with a broad range of professional  experience. Suddenly Chhabria’s “local government work” for the city attorney was more of a plus than the stodgy U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“Do the job that you are most interested in doing and that you’re going to find most fulfilling. Don’t make any decision about a job based on where it’s going to get you,” Chhabria said.

Armendariz said the same principle applies in the state courts. “There’s a misconception of what you have to do to get a clear pathway to the bench,” she said. “I would say follow what gets you mad, what you want to change.”

As a young lawyer, Armendariz started out doing prison litigation work that focused on conditions of confinement. Her first job was as legal counsel for the California Senate committee on public safety. “I was assigned to prisons. Nobody wanted that. Now it’s a little bit sexier. Criminal justice reform has been more in people’s eyes, but in the late 90s and early 2000s it was not sexy and nobody wanted to do it. The prison guards’ union was very powerful and they just railroaded any ideas we had for reform.”

In 1999, Governor Gray Davis appointed her ombudsman for women’s prisons in the California correctional system, a job she didn’t think she’d get because her mother was incarcerated. 

She was elected to the State Bar Court in 2007, a job she held until her appointment to the bench in 2018.
Once reticent to discuss her past, Armendariz said she spends a lot of time speaking to middle school and high school students about her job, and the path that got her there. 

“I’m very aware that I don’t look.. . . I’m hoping this look becomes more of what a judge looks like. I’m very aware that this is not the traditional look,” she said, indicating her long curly hair and large hoop earrings.

“I wear hoops for a reason and wear my hair down because I want to show that this is another representation of what a judge looks like,” Armendariz said. “Historically these sort of institutions weren’t built for someone who looks like me to take the bench. The simple existence of me being in this space is revolutionary.”

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