RICHLAND, Wash. — When Sal Mendoza Jr. reads the inscription on the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., he sees more than words in “Equal Justice Under Law.”
It’s because of that phrase that a migrant kid from Prosser took the oath Friday as a U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Washington, he explained.
And it’s really the “guiding principle of how I will choose to have a career on this bench,” he said.
Mendoza, 43, was officially sworn in as a federal court judge before a courtroom packed with judicial, legal and law enforcement dignitaries, along with family, friends and colleagues.
The Kennewick resident became the first Latino federal jurist on this side of the state.
“I’m certainly honored for this welcome that you have given me, and I want to welcome you to my family because I’m going to be here for a while,” he said.
The 45-minute ceremony was livestreamed in the Richland Federal Building’s auditorium for an overflow crowd.
Mendoza’s nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 17, and two days later President Barack Obama made the lifetime appointment.
Mendoza had been on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench for 13 months, and previously practiced law in the Tri-Cities for 15 years.
Mendoza said he thought about his family’s journey. The story begins with a young man and woman who left Mexico to create a better life for themselves, their children and their eventual grandchildren.
Maria and Salvador Mendoza Sr. “decided to come to this great country and work as farmworkers, work as laborers, work as maids, work in the fields, work in order to have the promise of a moment … like this,” the judge said, pausing as he became emotional.
“When I receive all the accolades and when I receive the congratulations, I have to tell you that it’s not lost on me who is responsible for that.”
Mendoza paid tribute to his late father and late sister, and recognized his mother, three brothers and the more than three dozen relatives in the audience.
Senior Judge Ed Shea read the oath of office and earlier noted that he and his wife were in D.C. on vacation in June and watched the Senate vote in favor of Mendoza’s confirmation.
Mia Mendoza and the couple’s three kids -- Anthony, Daniel and Carmen -- helped the new judge into his black robe.
Sal Mendoza took the position of Judge Lonny Suko, who served in Yakima and has moved to senior status.
Chief Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson approved a swap so Mendoza will be based in Richland and Shea’s replacement, Judge Stan Bastian of Wenatchee, is assigned to Yakima.
Malouf Peterson presided over Friday’s ceremony and said they’re thrilled to finally have a colleague seated in Richland with Shea.
Also present were Judge Richard C. Tallman with the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals; District Court Judge Thomas Rice; senior judges Justin Quackenbush, Robert Whaley and Suko, and Magistrate Judge John Rodgers.
Tallman said that to commemorate the occasion, the Circuit Court authorized him to give Mendoza one “get-out-of-appellate-court-free” card with no questions asked.
“Use it wisely, Your Honor,” he joked, noting that Eastern Washington is one of 15 districts before his court.
“I’m grateful that the president picked someone who comes from the people,” Whaley said. “He’s represented many people in trouble, he knows how power can be abused and he knows how to sort through lies because he’s done it for years. I think having someone on this court for 23 years before he can quit will make a huge mark on your lives.”
The jury box was filled with retired and current judges from Franklin and Benton counties, Superior Court, the state Court of Appeals, U.S. Bankruptcy Court and a retired federal magistrate.
Washington Supreme Court Justice Steve Gonzalez said there is a strong bond between the state court bench and federal bench, and he hopes to keep that relationship going with Mendoza’s appointment. He said it was an important day to have a Latino leader represent the community.“You are a legal scholar and an advocate and so much more,” Gonzalez said. “You have shown balance and sincerity and good judgment. We look forward to your continued service in that regard.”
Defense attorney Scott Johnson said it was a lawyer’s dream and nightmare to stand before a room full of judges and introduce his friend.
Johnson — who is a law partner with Mia Mendoza — took the opportunity to add levity and give a light roast of the judges.
Mendoza later countered Johnson and said he is eager to learn from his new federal family and listen to their advice as he starts this adventure.