Mendoza of Tri-Cities confirmed as federal judge

The U.S. Senate confirmed Sal Mendoza Jr. to become the first Latino federal judge in Eastern Washington on Tuesday morning with a vote of 92- 4.

He is expected to be based in either Yakima or Richland.

Mendoza has been a Benton-Franklin Superior Court judge since May 2013 and 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 serves as a Columbia Basin College trustee.

“(It is) 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 of the United States to become the very first Latino federal judge in the Eastern District of Washington,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on the Senate floor before the vote. Mendoza worked briefly as an intern for the senator early in his career.

He moved with his family from California to the Yakima area as a young child.

“Judge Mendoza personifies the American dream,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on the Senate floor Tuesday.

One in every nine residents of Washington is Hispanic, and Eastern Washington is home to a large and growing Hispanic population, yet the Eastern District of federal court has not had a Hispanic judge, she said.

She called Mendoza’s confirmation a major step forward and long overdue.

“Coming from very modest beginnings, Judge Mendoza has built a stellar legal resume,” Cantwell said.

Through his work ethic, commitment to his community and his belief in equal opportunity, he has been a leader and role model for families, particularly for young men and women born into poverty and difficult circumstances, Murray said.

In his application to serve as a federal judge, Mendoza wrote that he had studied and worked hard to better himself and his family.

“I understood then what I believe now, that both the quality of the educational system coupled with a strong system of justice will lift up the entire community,” he wrote.

Mendoza has described his judicial philosophy as being guided by the principles of patience, respect and humility -- principles that will serve him well as a federal judge, Murray said.

As the senior senator from Washington, Murray forwarded his nomination to President Obama, who nominated him Jan. 16. Mendoza’s name will go back to the White House for final approval by the president. Mendoza has been advised not to talk to the media until the appointment is final.

However, he discussed the experience he would bring to the federal bench during a March hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He is the civil presiding judge for Superior Court but as a practicing attorney he primarily handled criminal cases, he said.

“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 told senators. “I think it’s important to bring a wealth of experience to the position.”

He is expected to take the position of U.S. Judge Lonny Suko, who has served in Yakima on the federal court. However, there is a chance that the district could swap offices and place Mendoza in Richland at the Federal Building.

U.S. Judge Stan Bastian of Wenatchee was recently confirmed to replace U.S. District Court Judge Ed Shea of Richland. A swap would put Mendoza and Bastian closer to their hometowns.

Suko and Shea have gone to senior status, which gives them 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.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews