Latina Judges Making History and Headlines
In Harris County, Texas, including Houston, at least six Latina judges appeared on the same election ballot on Nov. 3.
They were called the “Las Super Sies" or The Super Six.
One speaks four languages. Another has worked with victims of human trafficking. Two were incumbents. One used to be a federal public defender, and the other represented unaccompanied minors in immigration and asylum proceedings.
What do they have in common?
All six are Latina.
All six are Democrats.
All six were on the same election ballot on Nov. 3 in Harris County, Texas.
All six won and are now courtroom leaders in the third-largest county in the country. Harris, which includes Houston, has more than 2 million Hispanics who make up nearly 44 percent of the county’s total population of 4.5 million.
Latina judges are continuing to make history and headlines across the nation even though they still are less than 2 percent of all the lawyers in the country.
For example, recently, Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt became the first Latina nominated to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Another example: Judge Barbara Lagoa, appointed by President Donald Trump to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, made Trump’s shortlist to replace Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died.
Lagoa, from Miami, was the first Latina appointed to Florida’s Supreme Court and would have been the second Latina appointed to the nation’s highest court. In 2009, former President Barack Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. At the time, Sotomayor was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Recently, five Latina judges in California detailed the challenges and obstacles they have faced — and overcome — in a zoom panel sponsored by the San Francisco La Raza Lawyers Association.
“We have made tremendous strides in the profession in the last 20 years, and we will continue to make tremendous strides,” said Superior Court Judge Suzanne R. Bolanos. In 2003, she became the first Latina appointed to the Superior Court of San Francisco County, an appointment she thought was long overdue given the area and the state’s large Latino population.
A graduate of UC Berkeley and Yale law school, Bolanos was an Assistant U.S. Attorney and served as a Special Assistant for Domestic Policy to Vice President Al Gore, advising him on civil rights, immigration, and education issues.
She was joined on the panel by San Diego County Judge Patricia Garcia, Judge Yvonne Gonalez Rogers from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Orange County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth G. Macias, and Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Connie R. Quinones.
“A diverse bench is crucial to achieving a fair system of justice and promoting public trust in our court,” according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. Diversifying the federal judiciary, however, has been slow. As of July 1, 2020, 80 percent of sitting judges were white, similar to the percentage in 2016, according to the Federal Judiciary Center.
But diversity is becoming more critical. Currently, Hispanic girls and women are one in five women in the U.S. and will comprise nearly one-third of the country’s female population by 2060.
“We belong here,” said Judge Quinones during the zoom panel. “We haven’t been here long, but we’re getting there, and there’s a lot more of us.”
In some cases, instead of waiting for appointments by the President or governors or confirmation, Latinas are putting their faith in voters to propel them into a courtroom and onto a judge’s bench to wield a gavel.
The six judges elected in Harris County range in education and experience. They appeared together at community events, and all but one had tight races. One in particular, Judge Amparo Monique Guerra, is following in the footsteps of her pioneering mother, Judge Linda Reyna Yáñez, the first Hispanic woman to serve on a Texas appeals court. Yáñez was appointed by former Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1993 and served until 2010, when her term expired.
Amparo Monique Guerra was elected to one of two seats on the 1st Court of Appeals (Place 5) that saw her win with 53.7 percent of the votes. A graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, Guerra was a law clerk for the late U.S. District Court Judge Filemon Vela in Brownsville, Texas, and an associate municipal judge for the City of Houston.
The other judges who made up the Super Six were:
- Lesley Briones was an incumbent appointed in 2019 to the Harris County Civil Court at Law #4. A Yale law school graduate and former teacher, she won with 55.4 percent of the votes. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Law Center.
- Natalia “Nata” Cornelio was elected to the 351st District Court with 54.9 percent of the votes. She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School and was a staff attorney at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She also was director of Criminal Justice Reform at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
- Julia Maldonado was an accountant for 15 years before she became a lawyer. She attended the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston. In 2008, she started her own law firm and was president of the Mexican-American Bar Association. An incumbent, Maldonado was elected to the 509th District Court with 54.5 percent of the votes.
- Ana Martinez was elected to the 179th District Court, defeating the incumbent in the primary with a resounding 79.8 percent of the votes. Martinez was a law clerk at the Texas Supreme Court and an assistant district attorney in Harris County. She is a founding member of the Human Trafficking section in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
- Veronica Rivas-Milloy won her campaign for the other open seat on the 1st Court of Appeals (Place 3). Like some of her fellow judges, Rivas-Milloy is a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center. She won with 54.3 percent of the votes.
In California, the zoom panel judges acknowledged difficult and dark moments during their careers. “There are so many barriers when you’re the first at everything,” Quinones said. Others, like Judge Elizabeth Macias, said she tries to never forget her roots as a gardener's daughter and the struggles her family faced. Her advice: “Never give up.”
The judges also expressed the importance of mentors and being better prepared than anyone else in the courtroom, especially when those around you will underestimate you. They urged young lawyers watching on the zoom panel to reach out to others in the legal world who can help them navigate the profession successfully.
Finally, Judge Gonzalez Rogers ended the panel by saying she believed Latina judges need three key ingredients to succeed, and they were as easy as pie to remember: “Passion, Integrity and Excellence,” Gonzalez Rogers said.