Tri-City judge Sal Mendoza Jr. nominated to federal judgeship

Tri-City HeraldJanuary 16, 2014 

Sal Mendoza Jr.

PAUL T. ERICKSON — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

The newest judge on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench appears to be a short-timer after his nomination Thursday for a federal judgeship.

Sal Mendoza Jr. was nominated by President Obama for a lifetime appointment to U.S. District Court.

Mendoza of Kennewick became the first Latino judge in the bi-county judicial system when he was sworn in last May.

The former lawyer had been appointed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to fill a Superior Court seat left empty after Judge Craig Matheson's retirement.

Now Mendoza, 42, could become the first Latino federal jurist in Eastern Washington, replacing Judge Lonny Suko who has chambers in Yakima.

Mendoza told the Herald on Thursday he has been instructed not to talk with the media. He apologized and said he didn't have any comments.

Sen. Patty Murray, as the senior of the two U.S. senators from Washington, forwarded Mendoza's name for consideration to Washington, D.C.

Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., also were in on the recommendation process.

Murray applauded the president's historic nomination Thursday, saying the judge is widely respected within the state's legal community and has dedicated much of his personal and professional life to working on behalf of children and families throughout the eastern half of Washington. She noted that Mendoza, early in his career, briefly worked for her as an intern.

"Judge Mendoza represents the very best of Washington state's honest, hardworking spirit, and I'm thrilled that President Obama has nominated him to continue serving our state as a federal judge," Murray said in a written statement.

She continued: "Judge Mendoza's incredible life story, from growing up as a migrant farm worker in the Yakima Valley to becoming the president's nominee for the United States District Court, is something all Washingtonians can be proud of."

The list of judicial nominations, released by the White House press office, will be sent to the Senate for confirmation hearings.

Mendoza was one of four people named Thursday for federal judgeships across the country.

"I am pleased to nominate these distinguished individuals to serve on the United States District Court bench," Obama said in a news release. "I am confident they will serve the American people with integrity and a steadfast commitment to justice."

There are 94 vacancies on the federal district and appellate courts, with 51 nominees pending, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Mendoza and the three other nominees named Thursday have not yet been added to the list, which would increase the pending number to 55.

Mendoza was picked last fall by an eight-person bipartisan committee in Eastern Washington to fill Suko's position. Suko, a federal judge based in Yakima since 2003, went to senior status Nov. 1.

The Eastern District of Washington has two judicial nominees for vacancies.

Stan Bastian, a Wenatchee lawyer, was nominated in September to replace Judge Ed Shea in Richland. Shea went to senior status in June 2012.

Judges on senior status handle a reduced workload.

The federal district covers all 20 counties in Washington east of the Cascade Mountains. It has courthouses in Spokane, Yakima and Richland.

The annual salary for a federal judge is $174,000.

Bastian has completed a comprehensive questionnaire and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. If a majority of the full Senate is in favor of his nomination, the president will be notified and Bastian confirmed as a new judge.

Mendoza will have to go through the same process in Washington, D.C.

Based on the hometowns of Bastian and Mendoza, there's a possibility the district can move to swap the positions -- assuming both men are confirmed -- so that Bastian would be based in Yakima and Mendoza in the Tri-Cities at the Federal Building.

Suko was not available Thursday to comment on Mendoza being named for his position.

Shea told the Herald he thinks Mendoza will be a fine jurist for U.S. District Court.

"Judge Mendoza is highly qualified and I'm hopeful the Senate will take prompt action on his nomination," he said. "I look forward to a time he will join us on the federal bench."

Mendoza first ran for election to Superior Court in 2008 against Bruce Spanner. That was for the seat vacated by retired Judge Dennis Yule.

Spanner beat Mendoza by a large margin, and now is the Superior Court presiding judge.

When Mendoza sought appointment to Matheson's spot, he got overwhelming support from his legal peers. He told the Herald at the time that he was called to this work, and now feels an extra sense of responsibility since he grew up in the Mid-Columbia.

He graduated from Prosser High School in 1990, and went on to the University of Washington for a bachelor's degree in philosophy and the University of California, Los Angeles, for his law degree.

Mendoza lives in Kennewick with his wife, Mia, also an attorney, and their three children.

He was a lawyer for 15 years, including a year as an assistant attorney general and a year as a deputy prosecutor in Franklin County. He also helped out as a pro tem judge in juvenile, municipal, district and superior courts.

Mendoza helped start the Juvenile Drug Court program, was a proponent of equal access to justice through his work with Benton-Franklin Legal Aid Society and served as a Columbia Basin College trustee.

Scott Johnson has continued the Mendoza & Johnson law firm with Mia Mendoza after her husband donned a black robe. The office is excited for Judge Mendoza after Thursday's news, he said.

"He's been a practicing lawyer for a long time and he hasn't been on the Superior Court bench that long, so I think he's going to have a unique perspective on the federal bench, just because he's gone from a real successful practice to the bench," Johnson said, "He's kind of a lawyer's judge in that regard."

Mendoza is young for a federal judge, and with three small kids at home, he should have "a perspective that is a little different than the current makeup on the federal bench," Johnson added.

"I think it's great for the whole Tri-Cities community that we're hopefully going to have a federal judge from the Tri-Cities," he said of his friend. "It's a real win for the community and, anytime the president of the United States nominates you for anything, that's a pretty big honor."

Sen. Cantwell said she was "extremely impressed" by Mendoza's experience when she spoke with him and praised Obama's decision to nominate a dedicated judge.

"Today's historic appointment paves the way for the first-ever Hispanic federal judge in Eastern Washington," she said in a news release. "I enthusiastically support his nomination and I know that he will impartially administer justice in a region that he is deeply committed to serving."

w Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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