In Central District of California, a Woman’s Place is in Court Leadership
On a January morning, as a federal appropriations lapse threatened to disrupt court operations, Chief Judge Virginia A. Phillips of the Central District of California gathered her senior leaders around a large table in the clerk of court’s office to plan for the impending crisis.
She noticed something that she hadn’t before: The court’s senior management team are all women.
“I hadn’t looked at the people I work with and thought, ‘Look at all these great women,’” Phillips said. “I focus on the diverse skills each person brings.”
In the Central District of California, in addition to Phillips as chief district judge, women hold the key positions of chief bankruptcy judge, clerk of court for the district and clerk of the bankruptcy court, chief probation officer, and federal public defender. The district has the largest number of women in top leadership positions across all 94 federal judicial districts.
The leaders in the Central District attribute their career success to a variety of traits they share, including hard work, integrity, and resilience. Accompanying their success are many stories of overcoming adversity, often with the help and support of other women working for the court.
District Clerk of Court Kiry K. Gray leads in a profession where law degrees are customary, but she never completed college. She believes she earned her “degree” through on-the-job training. When she was hired in 1985, her first job was a temporary position coding jury questionnaires at night. From there, she had roles of assistant supervisor in the criminal section, assistant deputy-in-charge of the Southern Division in Santa Ana, and deputy-in-charge of the Eastern Division in Riverside. Through hard work and the mentorship of former District Court Executive Sherri R. Carter, she acquired the necessary skills to become the first African-American woman clerk of court in the Ninth Circuit.
“I stand on the shoulders of generations of strong women before me who have given me the chance to have a voice and make change,” Gray said.
Bankruptcy Clerk of Court Kathleen J. Campbell recalls putting her career on hold three times to stay at home to raise her children before the Family and Medical Leave Act. Each time Campbell felt ready to return to work, she applied to be rehired. In total, Campbell held seven different job titles at the bankruptcy court before assuming the top administrative role as clerk of court.
“It’s great that people can now take extended leave to care for their kids and return to work when they are ready, without skipping a beat,” Campbell said. “While my career may not have progressed as quickly as my male counterparts’, my journey afforded me the opportunity to grow as a leader and gain a greater understanding for the inner workings of the court.”
Federal Public Defender Hilary Potashner’s small act of defiance was wearing a pantsuit to federal court the first time she tried a case rather than the conventional dress or skirt, which was the norm for women appearing in federal court in 2001.
“It sounds silly talking about it now,” she said. “But you can’t get so caught up in meeting the expectations that others put upon you that you lose who you are. What mattered and continues to matter is being prepared and diligent and always having the utmost integrity in your approach, not whether as a woman you are wearing a skirt suit or a pantsuit.”
Like Chief Judge Phillips, the court leaders in the Central District don’t think twice about gender distribution because women in leadership roles have become commonplace.
“We have achieved significant gender parity in this district, but a diverse judicial body is not something to be taken for granted,” said Chief Bankruptcy Judge Maureen A. Tighe.
Michelle A. Carey, chief probation officer, said, “A diverse workforce offers varying perspectives, informing us of our hidden biases and broadening our awareness.”
Gray says she sees a bright future for women in the Judiciary and the legal field.
“I think it’s important that we continue to work toward a Judiciary representative of the people we serve,” she said. “I hope that my story and the stories of others encourage future generations to leave a positive mark on the world, knowing the sky is the limit.”