Maybe all judges should come from families of 10 children.
That’s an easy conclusion to reach based on the performance of UCI alumna and U.S. Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James ’75, who has an unusual knack for wringing settlements out of warring lawyers and plaintiffs.
“I grew up in a big family,” James says. “When you’re living in a house with just two bathrooms and 12 people, there’s a lot of negotiating going on. And I was the oldest girl, so I mediated a lot of disputes. My childhood trained me for this job.”
Born in Michigan of a black father and white mother and raised in La Mirada, Calif., James never set out to become Judge James.
“For the longest time, I wanted to be a princess,” she says with a laugh. “But I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Nobody was going to save me from all these crazy relatives.”
“We were the only black family in La Mirada. My father was a rocket scientist, an engineer who built rockets for aerospace. He picked La Mirada because it was close enough to Mexico — we went there a lot — and it was near the mountains and the beaches. He liked all those things.
“He really likes diversity. He used to take us to Japanese movies and he hung Turkish paintings in his office. And my mom is very open; she married a black man in the ’40s. These are pretty adventurous people. They not only welcomed diversity, they praised it. So we just had to deal with all kinds of people.
“But in my neighborhood, we got called ‘nigger’ a lot. Then I would go to Los Angeles and hang out with my cousins on my father’s side and people would say, ‘Hey, here come the white cousins.’
“We got it from both sides.”
Even after graduating from the UCI School of Social Ecology and starting law school at the University of San Francisco, playing the role of judge did not show up on her professional radar screen.
While waiting to pass the bar, she worked in the San Francisco district attorney’s office and then became a criminal public defender before settling in the city attorney’s office prosecuting child abuse cases.
“I kept switching sides,” she says.
But as the wear and tear of child abuse cases began to show on her, an opening for a commissioner — a form of subordinate judge — came up in the San Francisco Superior Court.
“It sounded like an interesting thing to do so I applied and got the job. I soon realized I liked being in the middle and resolving problems, rather than being an advocate on either side.”
James graduated to work in the family court where she established a formal program of procedures for settlements. The procedures contain specific rules that have successfully sped cases through the crowded courts.
The judges of the federal court selected James to become a magistrate judge, a similar position to commissioner in superior court.
Unlike the federal judges, James handles no felony criminal cases and generally has only four or five trials a year. She deals in federal civil matters like patents, civil rights, discrimination in the work place, trademarks and retirement payment issues.
“Most of what I do is settlement. Probably, 70 to 80 percent of all cases are settled. If they weren’t, the courts would be clogged.
“I like settlements and I’m fairly good at it, if success is measured by the number you settle,” James says. “There is more to a settlement than settling a case. Sometimes you’re successful if you just manage to make the parties think about the issues. This is a real opportunity to deal with people and solve problems.
“And here, they come in with every imaginable problem and personality. I like trying to figure out their personalities and what makes them tick.
“There is often a hidden agenda. It may be that a guy is suing his neighbor over a problematic dog, but the unspoken issue is the neighbor ran off with the guy’s wife. It’s not always the case, some people are up front, but it often happens.
“I divide judges pretty much into two categories: those who see the job as power and those who view it as a responsibility. I see mine as responsibility to make people feel that I’ve listened to them and that they received some sort of justice. That is important to me.”