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Court: U.S. District Court for the Central District of CaliforniaBorn: 1957Appointed: 1999, by President ClintonPrevious judicial position: U.S. District Court Magistrate, 1995-1999; Riverside County Superior Court Commissioner, 1991-1995Law School: U.C. Berkeley, Boalt HallDuring pretrial motions in an insurance bad-faith case earlier this month, the plaintiff’s attorney was using what he called “reasonable inference” as a pretext to tell the judge about a pattern of defendant’s misdeeds.U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips was soft-spoken and deferential. She also wasn’t putting up with it. “What troubles me is that is not what we’re here to argue today. Please try to focus on the evidence that is before the court.”The U.S. Senate approved Phillips’ nomination just last November, after a delay caused not by her personally being controversial — her support was bipartisan, her approval unanimous — but rather because she was caught in the crossfire as Republicans and Democrats sparred over the acceptability of President Clinton’s judicial choices.She’s been a bench officer for nine years, and her insistence on “focus” is well-known.“She let me know I was being too thorough, and I guess I was,” says Richard Stack, an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. “My advice to colleagues going before her? Be concise.”“She’s evenhanded, patient and very nice. Most important, she wants very specific answers,” advises plaintiffs lawyer John Taylor of Greene, Broillet, Taylor, Wheeler & Panish of Santa Monica.The judge herself brings it up without prompting. “I would urge attorneys to focus on their best issues and not throw everything at the wall to see what sticks,” she says. She speaks quietly, and makes sure that anything she says that could be construed as criticism is leavened with compliments for those who appear before her.She says she sees an increasing tendency by attorneys to make ex parte applications when motions are more appropriate. She adds, however, that in general she is pleased with the professionalism and cooperation she sees among lawyers in her courtroom.Another important point for Phillips is consideration for jurors.Everyone agrees she works to make sure their time isn’t wasted, and if that requires additional organization by attorneys, so be it.A more sensitive issue is what attorneys may or may not need to know about a personal tragedy. In 1998, her husband, a professor who headed the history department at the University of California at Riverside, died when his car slammed into a tree. The crash coincided with the completion of a confidential investigation, commissioned by Riverside County, into allegations of gender-based discrimination and harassment in the department. The county coroner concluded the professor’s death was a suicide, and, drawing on a series of interviews with colleagues, added the speculation that while the professor believed he could refute the allegations, he wanted to spare his wife publicity that could damage her nomination.After a long pause, the judge says the matter has not come up in her courtroom and she does not believe it would pose a problem in, say, a civil rights case over sex discrimination. “I had the Hayward case just after my husband died,” she said, referring to an excessive force suit that was tried and retried against Riverside police to an ultimate plaintiffs’ verdict. “There, and in other cases, I made disclosures on the record about the county investigation.”Supervising Judge Terry Hatter Jr. confirms that sex discrimination cases in the Central District are assigned, like other cases, by lot. Hatter said he is comfortable with that. He is among those who intervened to help Phillips, who has served as a magistrate for his court since 1995, win confirmation.Hatter wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee, imploring them to not leave her in limbo and noting that the shortage of judges in Riverside has required roughly half the federal caseload there to be transferred 60 miles over traffic-clogged freeways to Los Angeles. Then, after she sailed through a questioning session with Committee Chair StromThurmond, R-S.C., Hatter flew to Washington — his first trip since his own confirmation 20 years ago — to attend the final vote.The federal courthouse in Riverside isn’t scheduled for completion until fall. But Phillips, whose roots in Riverside include nearly a decade as an associate and later partner in the area’s largest law firm — Best Best & Krieger — is eager to get there.Makeshift space will be good enough, she says. The plan is for her to begin presiding over cases there, possibly in space borrowed from the superior court, as early as June.

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