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Friday, September 22, 2023
Sept. 22, 2023

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‘See the humanity.’ Eastern Washington’s first federal appeals court judge sworn in


KENNEWICK — Sal Mendoza Jr. has represented a lot of firsts in his career.

He was the first Latino judge on the Benton and Franklin superior court bench. Then he was the first Latino federal jurist in Eastern Washington.

And on Friday, he was sworn in as the first Eastern Washington jurist to ever serve on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in front of a crowded auditorium at the federal courthouse in Richland.

“To me, though, being a judge is really about trying to understand people,” he said. “I believe that is our job, to see the humanity in every one before us to think about the way in which we treat each other and remember how the law can both help and hurt people.”

Mendoza held his investiture ceremony on Friday afternoon bringing a host of luminaries from across the Tri-Cities, the state and the country, including about 14 of his new colleagues from the Ninth Circuit.

He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a 46-40 vote to the spot in September.

A lifelong resident of Washington and a Prosser High graduate, Mendoza grew up as the son of migrant farmers and worked on the crops of the Mid-Columbia beside his parents.

He graduated from the University of Washington in 1994, and then from law school at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1997. He returned to Washington, working as an assistant attorney general, and as a Franklin County deputy prosecutor before starting his own practice in 1999.

Then in 2013, he became the first Latino on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court, before being named to the U.S. District Court in 2014.

Mendoza will take the 17th seat of 29 spots on the Ninth Circuit appellate court. It was first held by Jerome Farris, the first Black judge on the circuit, Judge M. Margaret McKeown said.

She followed Farris into the seat in 1995, and is stepping back to become a senior judge.

She told the crowd that Farris and Mendoza shared the same hard scrabble backgrounds that informed their sense of justice.

“(Mendoza) knows hard work, and he’s adaptable and extremely grateful,” McKeown said. “So I know Judge Farris, who passed away a few years ago, is just up their smiling, and saying, ‘This is a wonderful judge joining the succession to seat no. 17.’”

No Judge More Qualified

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Ed Shea said he first met Mendoza when he was an attorney, and he had the “intelligence and passion that drives all brilliant trial lawyers.”

“He did not just file perfunctory motions. He crafted a strategy, and pursued the best outcome for his clients, humanizing them to the court,” Shea said.

When Shea planed to move to senior status, he hoped a lawyer with Mendoza’s qualities would apply for the spot. He urged him to pursue the position.

Soon after his appointment to the U.S. District Court bench, Mendoza presided over a high-profile criminal case with a number of complex issues and national medial interest.

“He handled it all with skill and savvy earning the praise of all involved,” he said. “Those capabilities became the hallmark of his time in the Eastern District of Washington as they had been in superior court.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, who named Mendoza to the Benton-Franklin Superior Court to replace retiring Judge Craig Matheson, said Mendoza is a judge that can be counted on to always be guided by facts.

Mendoza’s appointment was one of the first decision’s Inslee made during his time as governor, and he found someone with courage and resilience who would bring a new heritage to the bench.

“He has always made sure that when people walk in the courtroom, it doesn’t matter how powerful you are or how powerless you are, you’re going to get a fair shake,” Inslee said. “I was taking a little chance when I appointed him and that chance has been rewarded with universal acclaim.”

Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Norma Rodriguez said she wanted to sum up Mendoza’s success in four “C’s” — courageous, competent, committed and capable.

She said she got to see his work ethic, professionalism and that he always treated his clients like they were human beings.

“So congratulations to the Ninth Circuit. You get to take our Sal from us, and Sal, you know I’m very proud of you, as are all of these people that are here to celebrate you,” she said. “I think your four C’s actually add up to an A+ in my book.”

A Network of People

When Mendoza took the stage, his 30-minute speech was marked with moments where he was near tears. This included talking about the secretary who let him and his siblings into the school when she didn’t have to.

“I remember when we were working in the asparagus fields, I would see the school bus pass by as we were finishing up,” he said. “I remember we needed to finish up. We needed to get home, run to the trailer, get on our clothes and run to school and the school had a deadline in which you had to get there. And sometimes we wouldn’t make it. We would get there and have to face the attendance secretary and say, ‘Sorry we’re late.’”

“She didn’t have to let us in, but every time she did, and those moments of kindness are things that we cannot forget.”

He thanked a host of people for their support through the years, including his wife, Mia Mendoza and their three children.

“While this job can get academic and in the weeds, I’ll never forget who I am or where I came from or the people that actually got me here,” he said. “So muchas gracias. Thank you.”