From Mills to the Bench

As women in the judiciary undergo new scrutiny across the country, three alumnae judges recall the trajectory of their careers.

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Three alumnae carry their Mills experiences into judiciary careers that have continued long after most have settled into retirement.

Words by Shelley Moench-Kelly • Illustrations by Michael Wertz

For an institution without a traditional law school, Mills College has produced a number of distinguished alumnae who have pursued careers in the legal world. Several of them have worked long and hard enough to be appointed or elected to the judicial bench. 

Their journeys all started with a Mills education, and the far-reaching influence of that opportunity, camaraderie, and freedom of expression has colored their personal and professional lives ever since. We recently caught up with three of those alumnae and took a deep dive into their experiences navigating minefields of a male-centric arena and the perspectives that women bring to the bench. They’ve also witnessed the changing landscape for women judges—including a meteoric rise to the highest courts in the land. 

Some Cracks in the Ceiling 

Glass ceilings are always at the forefront of any dialogue over women in the workforce. Anita Rae Lavine Shapiro ’61 graduated with her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 and remembers women lawyers facing a lot of discrimination in the 1960s. One of her first jobs in the legal field was working as a senior judicial attorney for the California Courts of Appeal in Los Angeles. “I remember one job interview with a major law firm in Los Angeles where the interviewer wondered out loud why his law school didn’t send him candidates as qualified as I was,” she says. “But, of course, I was not offered a position working as an attorney at his law firm.” 

The Hon. Anita Rae Lavine Shapiro ’61 has been an arbitrator and mediator since she retired from her position as a Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner in 1997 to be a private judge. She was a senior judicial attorney for the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles and San Bernardino for 12 years before she was appointed to the bench.

Despite antiquated restrictions, Shapiro says that in the 56 years since she passed the bar, women have advanced dramatically in the field. “The opportunities for women in the law have increased dramatically. There are fewer glass ceilings,” she says. “It is also wonderful that we have a large cross section of the population sitting on the bench in California.” 

It took a few decades, though, for women to smash all the way through the widening fissures. Barbara Zúñiga ’67 was appointed to the bench in 1985 after working for the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office—and thanks to encouragement from several judges and prosecutors who mentored her in her role as a court liaison officer before she attended law school. “There were very few women on either the municipal or superior courts,” she says, adding that the lobbying efforts of organizations such as the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) and California Women Lawyers were instrumental in getting more women appointed to the bench in California. Zúñiga later served as president of the former organization, and she echoes Shapiro’s observation that there is “greater overall diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual identity/expression, and disability. We are better judges because of it.” 

Jacki Brown ’74 explains that her class at Mills was one of the “big, strong feminist groups,” with many joining the National Organization for Women (NOW). “We were definitely taking on the role of breaking ground and being proud of it,” she says. “Our lives were open and [we were] capable of basically doing everything.” She adds that since graduating from law school in 1977 and beginning her practice, she has seen vast improvements. “Women now make up half of the legal community, due to a public push for women to be appointed to the bench, to be represented in corporate environments, and to hold leadership roles,” she says. 

However, Brown has experienced discriminatory behavior from both sexes, as the patriarchy spares no one: “A few women were like ‘queen bees’ and disparaged any woman attorney who they felt competed against them,” she says. “I was unhappy with the male behavior because they seemed to think they could act arrogant and ‘superior’ to me simply because I was female. For instance, on more than one occasion, I was told they wanted to speak with a ‘real’ attorney and not some paralegal.” Another time, she was ordered by another prosecutor to babysit three children waiting in the hallway while their father was testifying in court. “We had aides to assist witnesses, but this man enjoyed ordering me—the only female attorney in the office—to do ‘girl’ jobs for him,” she says. 

The Shifting Sands of Progress 

The 19 years before the millennium were remarkable in many ways, including women’s appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the first to serve, with a nearly 25-year tenure; since then, four more women have been appointed. And while all of them faced challenges as trailblazers, none have been under such intense public scrutiny as Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Amy Coney Barrett. They are the most studied, and—as some claim—the most politicized women justices in history. 

Shapiro recalls Ginsburg—or, The Notorious R.B.G., in pop-culture parlance—as a “very bright, hardworking, good person,” she says. “She and Antonin Scalia were good friends, even though they were on opposite sides.” Shapiro doesn’t see Ginsburg as a political symbol, but rather “a symbol of an outstanding judge, justice, and person. She happened to be liberal, but there are also conservative political symbols who are outstanding judges and people.” 

Brown counters that Ginsburg “was a very effective political symbol, because her image was—in a very real sense—impregnable,” she says. “Even if she had never been elevated to the Supreme Court, she had to work twice as hard to get halfway closer to it, and she did it beautifully her whole life.” She goes on to explain that Ginsburg just did her job with laser focus and without fanfare: “From my perspective, she was just an incredibly intelligent, profound thinker, and one who was incredibly fair.” 

But what of Justice Ginsburg’s successor, Amy Coney Barrett? Is she a political pawn, or an accomplished professional with a bright future ahead? The proverbial jury is still out, mostly because of the short time Barrett has held the post (at press time, about seven months). Our judges have considered her qualifications. 

Judge Barbara Zúñiga ’67 retired as a judge on the Superior Court of California, County of Contra Costa. She became the first woman of color
(Zúñiga is Mexican American) to sit on the bench there when she was
elected in 1994. In 1985, she was appointed to a judgeship at the Walnut
Creek-Danville Municipal Court, and has been a prosecutor and a probation officer in Contra Costa County.

“What she has done in her short life really has been quite impressive. She is extremely well spoken and well-focused. Her legal analysis is excellent,” Brown says. “But we don’t have that much directly from her because she’s only been a justice for a relatively short period of time. As is true with anyone appointed to such an illustrious bench, we will not know exactly how the different components of her personality will play out.”

Shapiro concurs that Barrett is still an unknown, but she adds that people must have hope that those who are put on the SCOTUS are “good, honest judges.”

What has distinguished Barrett thus far from other women SCOTUS justices is her role as a mother raising school-aged children during her time on the bench—she has seven children, the youngest of which is eight years old. (The other mothers on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor and Ginsburg, had children ranging in ages from 19 to 38 when appointed.) During Barrett’s confirmation hearings, some of her supporters (and Barrett herself) used that as a reason she was qualified for the bench; NBC News reporter Sahil Kapur quoted Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as saying, “As a mother of seven, Judge Barrett clearly understands the importance of health care.” One of the many articles published around Barrett’s confirmation was a Huffington Post piece that critiqued the supposition that her motherhood put her above reproach: “It has been repeatedly implied by Barrett’s supporters that criticism of this particular woman is an attack on all women and all mothers, regardless of how Barrett’s actions stand to impact other women and other mothers,” wrote author Emma Gray. 

Brown says that, in her estimation, one could easily describe a male candidate as being a good husband and father, the implication being that he will be as consistent in professional life as he is in private. “As far as I can tell, that should be the only reason why a woman candidate should be described as a good mother and wife,” she concludes. Brown adds that “if the sole and honest reason for criticizing [Barrett] is that she’s a young woman, then taking that position is antifeminist. If the reason is that she is going to be unable to do the job in a neutral, non-political fashion, it’s not anti-feminist.” 

Shapiro adds that Barrett’s role as a mother is not a “qualifying factor” for a judicial position, and notes that it’s “good to have members of the judiciary with varying backgrounds and experiences. However, intelligence, legal and judicial experience, and lack of bias are far more important than motherhood or lack thereof.” 

Yin and Yang 

The issue of juggling professional and personal roles is one that been a concern for our judges. Shapiro explains that when she was first appointed to the bench, her kids were 16, 13, and 9: “I don’t think it had any effect on my work life because I had been working full time for the Court of Appeal for the previous 12 years, so we had worked out balancing work and home.” 

When Brown adopted her son in 1999, she was working at the Court of Appeal for Presiding Justice David Sills. “He was very supportive of my need to be with my infant and then toddler son, and provided me with flexible hours to do so,” she says. However, her son was eight years old when she was appointed to the bench. “That position had no flexibility and I had to pay to have plenty of private help once I started that job,” she says. “But I can honestly say I have no regrets as to my choice of careers and would recommend it to any young woman who has very thick skin and plenty of energy to expend.” 

Judge Jacki Brown ’74 is a judge for the Superior Court of Orange County,
California, a position that former Governor
Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to in 2008. She has worked in private practice and as a district attorney for both the Marin
County and San Mateo County District
Attorney’s offices.

Brown has presided over a wide variety of cases, from juvenile delinquency and estates to felony criminal cases. While she notes there have been instances where she has been pigeonholed by other judges, she also asserts that it’s been great to work with other women. “We do seem more at ease with embracing and tolerating differences, though we can make the same mistakes as men would in the same environment,” she says. “I’ve found that women work with one another better because we’re either not so defensive, or we embrace a concept of work that by its very nature involves toleration and concern for others.” Brown adds that women judges tend to present a more serious demeanor in public, but are more open to interacting with a greater variety of people. “I’m very proud to say that because it enhances the bench,” she says. 

Shapiro concurs. “I was volunteering for a day in a San Bernardino juvenile court before I became a commissioner. All the professionals in one of the proceedings were women, and it was a great feeling,” she says. Zúñiga—who in her career has presided over civil cases including sexual harassment and medical malpractice, as well as criminal cases such as murder—recalls a comment from Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, at an NAWJ conference more than 30 years ago. It has resonated with her ever since: “The role of women judges is not to feminize the courts, but to humanize them.” 

The Evergreen Influence of Mills College 

Our judges have all excelled in their professional careers, and continue to reap the benefits of their training and experience to this day. They unanimously agree that the College was the foundation upon which their careers were built. 

Zúñiga recalls her time at Mills with great fondness because of the depth of her education and the confidence she gained. “Mills [was] an environment where you knew you would be heard. It also exposed me to women from different countries and cultures. Mills was called ‘Vassar of the West’ and gave me a wonderful education,” she says. 

Shapiro counts herself as lucky for receiving a liberal arts education that gave her the foundation to accomplish her goals. “I was able to do things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do if I’d gone to a large university,” she says. “I could double major and graduate in three years without any problems. In a large university, you would probably not be able to have a curriculum tailored to your needs.” 

Brown asserts that Mills instilled in her that you can’t just memorize facts and regurgitate them. “You had to be able to hone your skills of communication to either present [to] or persuade other people. And if you couldn’t do that—because it requires critical thinking as well as analysis and then communication—the professors hadn’t done their jobs,” she says. “We all view Mills as our true home because it made us the people we are today. It made me want to be a lawyer. It made me confident that I could be one. There’s no way I would have ever even applied to go to law school, much less graduate from it, but for Mills.”