Kennewick judge testifies for federal nomination in Washington, D.C.

Tri-City HeraldMarch 12, 2014 

— Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. spent more time Wednesday introducing the loved ones with him in Washington, D.C., and recognizing family, friends and supporters at home, than he did talking about his federal nomination.

That’s because Mendoza — who’s up for a lifetime appointment to U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington — only had to answer one general question during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mendoza has been on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench since May. He was told to compare his job with that of a federal jurist. The 42-year-old Kennewick man was nominated Jan. 16 by President Obama.

The committee hearing is part of the confirmation process and must be done before going to the full Senate and back to the president. “I’d like to thank President Obama for this incredible nomination, this incredible opportunity,” Mendoza told the committee members. “I’m certainly honored.”

Mendoza later told the Herald that he remains under orders not to talk with the media while his nomination is pending.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced the judge. She noted that the Mendoza family “traveled out here to what we call the ‘other Washington,’ and said it’s rare that she gets a nominee who is one of her former interns.

“It’s also not every day that a man who is the son of migrant farm workers, and himself worked on farms in the Yakima Valley, is called on by the president to become the first Latino federal judge in the Eastern District of Washington,” Murray said. “So, as a senator from Washington state, I’m incredibly proud to introduce him to the committee today because, through his life story, Judge Mendoza represents the very best of our state’s honest, hardworking spirit.”

Murray, as the senior of the two U.S. senators from Washington, forwarded Mendoza’s name to the White House for the historic nomination. She thanked him for his willingness to serve Washington.

Mendoza would replace Judge Lonny Suko on the federal bench. Suko has an office in Yakima.

Also awaiting confirmation for a judicial vacancy in Eastern Washington is Stan Bastian, a Wenatchee lawyer who was nominated in September to replace Judge Ed Shea in Richland.

Both Suko and Shea have gone to senior status, meaning they handle a reduced workload.

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

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.

Mendoza was one of five nominees to testify Wednesday during the hourlong hearing.

The other nominees are for the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. District Courts in Nevada and Illinois, and director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Leon Rodriguez, who’s up for the director position under the Department of Homeland Security, said he wanted to “salute the great American stories” of those seated next to him.

“Their stories illustrate the long road that we all travel to days like this one,” he said. “And it’s stories like theirs that really inspire me to do, hopefully in the event of my confirmation, a job like director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is such a great path to offer opportunity to new Americans.”

Mendoza’s family moved from California to the Yakima Valley when he was a young child. 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 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 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.

Murray said Mendoza’s work ethic and belief in equal opportunity make him a leader and a role model for families throughout the state, especially for young men and women born into poverty and difficult circumstances.

When Mendoza applied to serve as a federal judge, he wrote that he understood as a kid and believes now “that both the quality of the education system, coupled with a strong system of justice, will lift up the entire community,” Murray said.

“He has described his judicial philosophy as guided by the principles of patience respect and humility,” she added. “The same principles that have guided his life and legal career … and principles that will serve him well as a member of the federal judiciary.”

Only one question was posed to Mendoza during the hearing.

“As a judge, do you want to talk a little bit about how being a judge, your current job as judge, is going to differ from this one?” asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. and committee chairwoman.

Mendoza noted he is civil presiding judge for Superior Court, and that when he was a practicing attorney he primarily handled criminal law.

“So it’s important to have both the criminal law experience and the civil law experience, and that will suit me well if I am confirmed to this position,” he testified. “… I think it’s important to bring a wealth of experience to the position.”

Mendoza told the committee he was joined at the hearing by wife Mia — “an excellent lawyer, an excellent wife and an incredible mother” — along with mother Maria Mendoza of Prosser and longtime legal assistant and good friend Monica Villanueva.

Mia Mendoza smiled and waved to the board after her introduction, eliciting laughs from the entire gallery, and Maria could be seen taking pictures of the occasion with her cellphone.

Murray had said that it was Maria Mendoza’s first time visiting the nation’s capital, so she could witness her son testify.

Judge Mendoza said it was his parents, including late father Salvador, who taught him what it means to be a good human being. He also paid tribute to sister Ilda L. Islas, who died in a 2012 car crash, saying she was his best friend and he wanted her name to be in the record.

He also mentioned his brothers Hector, Bobby and Raul, who were back in the Tri-Cities, along with his three children: Carmen, 4, Danny, 6, and Anthony, whose ninth birthday was Wednesday.

Mendoza sent his appreciation to his friends watching at home, including wife-and-husband law-yers Norma Rodriguez and Mario Interiano, and former law partner Scott Johnson. He also recognized his five Superior Court colleagues, the Washington Supreme Court justices and the federal bench in Eastern Washington for their support.

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

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