The first black policewoman in Oakland who went on to hold three presidential appointments.
A Big Law partner who decided to scale back to raise her kids but still impressed the White House.
A young mom who put herself through law school while working full time.
The women Saundra Brown Armstrong, Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers and Kandis Westmore cut very different paths to the federal bench at 1301 Clay St. in Oakland's city center, where they are a part of a historic moment in the Northern District of California when female judges hold all the seats in a single branch.
It's also the first time any major federal courthouse in the country has an all-female bench of both lifetime appointees and their magistrate colleagues. Moreover, five of the six judges who sit in that courthouse are women of color.
Even in 2012 even in California those are stunning statistics.
The phenomenon reflects decades of concerted diversity efforts coupled with random seat assignments and the preferences of particular judges for where to live and work.
"It's been a long time coming," cheered San Francisco trial lawyer Nanci Clarence of Clarence Dyer & Cohen, who has participated in vetting federal magistrates and district judges.
She's among those who say the gender transformation of the local bench has helped level the playing field, by changing the atmosphere of a courthouse, the tone of litigation and even the conversation with clients.
Nowadays, as Clarence puts it, she doesn't feel like the "one skirt in the courtroom."
As the bench and bar have diversified, "It's not just the 6'2", former linebacker, graying at the temples, white male anymore," Clarence said.
With more women on the bench, clients are forced to pay attention to diversity, said M. Patricia Thayer, an IP partner at Sidley Austin.
"They understand when a case is about to go to trial in front of a female judge, they darn well better have a team that is diverse and includes women with serious roles. Because these judges notice," she said.
Thayer and her colleague, Vera Elson, another IP partner at Sidley, say having more women running federal courtrooms sends the message that all litigants are on equal footing.
"It just communicates to me that it's much more of a meritocracy," Elson said.
While the court has evolved over a generation, several of the East Bay judges said the view from the bench has not changed enough.
Female lawyers frequently appear for government agencies but high-stakes business litigation remains a predominately male sphere, particularly in areas like antitrust and patent disputes.
"Even though all the judges in Oakland are women, I have not necessarily seen a corresponding increase in women practicing in our court," Armstrong observed.
Fellow Oakland jurist, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton, called it disheartening to walk into the courtroom and see "50 men with gray suits, no women to be found, no people of color."
"I always pay attention when women come up, particularly if they are young women," she said. "It's not that I don't do that with the male lawyers because I do as well, but there are such fewer number [of women], I notice them immediately."
While the six judges in Oakland have taken varied paths to the bench, they share a common history of breaking barriers of race and gender.
Each in her own way has juggled the demands of work and family and now brings that sensibility to the role of judge.
Armstrong, appointed in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, was the first female African-American judge in the Northern District.
In 1970, Armstrong started her career as an Oakland police officer. She was one of four women among 700 men in an organization that did not permit females to fill most roles or to compete with men for promotions.
Armstrong, who took senior status in March, now works just six blocks away in what could be a different universe.
"So much has changed since I graduated law school," she said. "It's amazing to see. It's amazing to experience. It's a blessing to be a part of."
One thing that hasn't changed for professional women is the challenge of balancing a career and family, said Armstrong, who has two grown children.
Prior to becoming a judge, Armstrong served as a member of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington, D.C., and a commissioner on the U.S. Parole Commission, overseeing parole decisions in 14 western states. Both positions were powerful presidential appointments.
In the late 1980s, Armstrong applied for a judicial opening in Alameda County because she wanted to travel less and be home more with her children. She spent two years as a Superior Court judge before her nomination to the federal bench.
Nearly two decades after Armstrong made her career transition, Gonzalez Rogers, the district's first Latina judge, faced a similar work-life conundrum.
Gonzalez Rogers, a third-generation Mexican-American from San Antonio, was a new partner at Cooley and trying to balance the demands of her litigation practice with her role as a mom.
She and her husband, a director in the San Francisco office of McKinsey & Co., needed two nannies to help care for their three young children.
"One for the a.m. shift and one for the p.m. shift," Gonzalez Rogers explained. "I always had an overflow because I could never guarantee that I could be home on time."
In 2003, she decided she needed to make a change and resigned from Cooley to be a more involved parent.
"I was beginning to sense that my kids were not adjusting well to the fact that I was gone so much," she said. "I could have changed the nature of my practice, and I tried, but then I didn't like it as much."
After leaving Cooley, Gonzalez Rogers was hardly idle. She co-chaired a campaign to pass a school funding measure and served as foreperson of the Alameda County grand jury. In 2008, she was appointed to the Superior Court in Oakland. Last year Obama named her to the federal bench.
In her chambers, Gonzalez Rogers keeps a stack of name plates from her days at Cooley, where she was the first Latina to make partner. Her name was so long it was used as the test each time the firm changed plaques, she said. She never considered dropping "Gonzalez" a piece of her Mexican heritage.
"We've opened doors and now we need more we need seconds and thirds and fourths," Gonzalez Rogers said. "I think part of my role is to be that example, to let people know they can do this, too."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu said she saw the impact her appointment had on her students at UC-Hastings, where she taught in the school's civil justice clinic. Ryu, selected by the district in 2010, was both the first female Asian-American (U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh was confirmed three months later) and the first open lesbian judge in the Northern District.
Being a role model is a "powerful thing," Ryu said. "I remember feeling that as a young attorney myself with different people along the way. It's an important connection and one I'm proud to play for other people."
Ryu's parents moved to the United States from Korea in the late 1940s and ran a 13-unit motel near Monterey, where the family of seven also lived.
"My parents worked really hard to get a foothold, and to raise a family, and to make a good life for us where they never really fit in," Ryu said.
Ryu, who co-founded a civil rights law firm in Oakland, said she feels at home with the legacy of the diversity in the Northern District. Her sexual orientation has been a "nonissue," she said.
"Look at our chiefs, trailblazers who are amazing jurists," she said, rattling off the roster of past chiefs including Thelton Henderson, Marilyn Hall Patel and Vaughn Walker. (Henderson was the court's first African-American judge; Patel, the first woman. Walker is openly gay.) "There's a long, strong, proud line of people who are not the typical picture of a judge."
'A Warmer, Collegial environment'
If the typical mental image of a judge is a white male with graying hair, that couldn't be further from Westmore, who took the bench this year after working most of her career in the Oakland city attorney's office.
Westmore said she still gets some surprised looks when she tells people she is a judge a reaction she ascribes to the color of her skin, or her gender, or her youthful appearance at 46.
"I can only interpret this as a positive thing," she said. "There are all kinds of people in the community who come before us, and there is an appearance that justice is for all when you come into a courthouse and its possible for you to see a judge who looks like you."
Westmore is a second-generation lawyer, as her mom worked for the Alameda County district attorney's office. And she represents a second generation of African-American jurists in the Bay Area, serving decades after Henderson and Armstrong joined the court. In law school, Westmore externed for Armstrong.
Now Westmore does the mentoring, particularly for women who are attending law school while raising families.
She had her first son while she was an undergraduate student at UC-Berkeley. Motherhood was her motivation to enroll in law school.
"I thought I might be a single parent for my entire life," she said. "I looked at my son, and I thought I have to be able to make his world what I want it to be."
Westmore worked full time while attending University of San Francisco School of Law at night. After her first year, she gave birth to her second child and married. Giving up her career goals because of family responsibilities wasn't an option she considered.
"I knew people who assumed that because I was going to have a child while I was at Cal that I was going to withdraw. It never crossed my mind," she said. "I never thought because I don't have a traditional background, or I didn't go to an Ivy League school that somehow that means I can't do it."
Westmore said she applied for the most recent magistrate opening specifically because she knew it was in Oakland.
"I'm an East Bay girl. My life is here," she said.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, the Northern District's new chief judge, is another East Bay fixture and a resident of the Oakland federal courthouse since it opened in 1994.
A former federal public defender and UC-Berkeley law school graduate, Wilken joined the bench as a magistrate in 1983, at first working out of Oakland's post office and later commuting to San Francisco.
She was nominated by President Clinton in 1993 to fill a newly created judicial vacancy and moved back to Oakland to establish her chambers the following year just as the new courthouse opened within Oakland's federal complex.
The outpost has been 100 percent female since U.S. District Judge D. Lowell Jensen, another East Bay loyalist and former district attorney for Alameda County, moved his chambers to San Jose in January.
(The women did not "drive him out," Wilken likes to joke, and Jensen confirmed he moved to San Jose to be closer to family.)
As Jensen phased his caseload to San Jose, Hamilton transferred from San Francisco to Oakland to fill the vacancy.
Hamilton, like Wilken, a Clinton appointee elevated from the magistrate bench, was the second African-American woman to join the district's bench. She grew up in central Illinois and was the first in her family to graduate from college. Most of her peers went to work in factories or on farms or joined the military, said Hamilton."When I think about how I grew up and my early life circumstances, it's really pretty amazing," she said.
Hamilton set out to be a criminal defense lawyer but was quickly drawn into the world of judging first as an administrative judge for the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board and then as a Municipal Court commissioner in Oakland.
Even after 19 years in San Francisco, the Oakland courthouse feels like home, she said.
"As soon as I came over, even before we were an all-female courthouse, I could just tell it was a warmer and very collegial environment," she said. "San Francisco has a different vibe. Here, because it's a smaller environment, we make more time to spend with each other."
As it happens, women also run the Oakland branches of the U.S. attorney's office, federal public defender's office and clerk's office, contributing to the unique feel of the East Bay's federal court community.
In the 32 years since the first female judge joined the bench, the Northern District has surpassed the national average for female representation, with seven of 18 Article III slots held by women in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
Of just the judges on active status, those carrying full caseloads, five of the 10 are women. Nationwide, that number is roughly 30 percent.
All of which makes Northern California a stark contrast to federal courts in Idaho, Alabama, Georgia, Montana, Illinois and other states that have never had a single female judge, according to the National Women's Law Center.
U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, a long-time San Jose jurist who is on leave to head the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., confirmed Oakland's all female-bench is unprecedented.
"It's very clear there's never been a court entity of this size where it's been entirely women," Fogel said.
For litigants, criminal defendants and practitioners, he said, appearances do matter.
"It's not just the courthouse and the majesty of the building, the dignity of the courtroom, that matters," he said, "but are people in various positions in the judiciary someone they can identify with? From the standpoint of appearances, it's a good thing."
To some extent, change is happening nationwide and becoming increasingly visible. In 2012, Wilken attended a conference for chief judges of the nation's federal courts where at least one-third of the ranks were women.
"President Clinton appointed a lot of women and that was awhile back," Wilken said. "A lot of us are now becoming the senior judges in our districts."
But that can't be taken for granted in every jurisdiction. Nearby, in California's Eastern District with divisions in Sacramento and Fresno, the first woman joined the bench in late 2010. In the Bay Area, that distinction belongs to Patel, who was nominated by President Carter in 1980 and crusaded to bring up more women behind her. Among other efforts, Patel pushed behind the scenes for the court to hire female magistrates so there would be a pipeline of women with judicial experience.
At the 1988 investiture of the court's second female judge, Fern Smith, Patel faintly praised the court for doubling its female ranks in just eight years.
Now Patel's compliments can be more sincere.
"The Northern District has done a great job of changing the composition of the district. It takes awhile, but it's exciting to see the change," Patel said. "We need to spread the word and try to find ways to get that to happen in other districts."