Cynthia Imbrogno may be the greatest teacher who never was.
As a young science teacher in the early 1970s, she couldn’t immediately find a job in the glut of graduates seeking draft deferments. So the young biologist eventually entered Gonzaga Law School.
Today, both students of the law and its top practitioners say U.S. Magistrate Imbrogno may be one of the most inspiring instructors around, daily imparting lessons from her federal courtroom on compassion, decency and serious study. And like all good teachers, serving as a role model.
For every student with no money, no chance of getting into an Ivy League school and parents who are blue-collar workers, Imbrogno could be the poster child for hard work.
Friday, the Women’s Law Caucus at Gonzaga University’s School of Law will present Imbrogno with the Myra Bradwell award for outstanding contributions to women and the law.
Named for the country’s first woman lawyer, the award is given by students to attorneys whose activism, leadership and reputation they aspire to.
For Imbrogno, it’s another peak in a career of peaks - from being the first woman from her hometown (Kane, Pa.) to go to law school to being the first woman to become a federal magistrate in the eastern district of Washington.
As a magistrate, she has held federal court in a hospital room where a wounded Kevin Harris lay handcuffed to the bed after surrendering on Ruby Ridge. She has fined grizzly poachers, denied bail for drug ring leaders and soothed nervous new citizens.
She works weekends and evenings and is visited at home regularly by federal agents seeking search warrants. Her court is the first one federal criminal defendants enter, and the number of drug cases sometimes wears her down.
“The tough part of the job is seeing people come in raw and strung out on methamphetamine, crack and having your hands tied,” she said. “Most are addicts, pure and simple, and we’re just reacting to the problem.”
In the stately and serious corridors of federal court, Imbrogno concentrates on protecting the rights of citizens and the integrity of the process. But it is the rest of what she does that earns her the most praise.
“Great human and personal instincts, very bright, hard-working and excellent student of the law” were among the words offered by colleagues.
“Coming into the court is one of the most significant events in a person’s life,” said Frem Nielsen, chief judge of the district. “To have somebody like Cynthia as opposed to someone who’s arrogant, arbitrary and heavy-handed makes all the difference in the world.”
Jim Bamberger, director of Spokane Legal Services, lauds her demeanor in court and her ongoing work on gender and race equality and access to justice for the poor.
“She’s not driven by ego. When people are in front of her, there is the feeling that she is acting in service of the system rather than in service of self.”
Former U.S. Attorney Bill Hyslop has strongly disagreed with some of her decisions yet respects her well-researched opinions and her work ethic.
“I have been up there long after hours, and it’s very common to see Judge Imbrogno still working, her lights still on.”
As the only daughter in a field of five brothers, Imbrogno grew up in a working-class Italian family in the forests of western Pennsylvania.
Working in the furnace room in a Sylvania factory, she watched co-workers faint in the heat or swallow salt pills in an attempt to keep from fainting as they fired 365 components a night.
Vowing to get an education, she earned scholarships to get a biology degree and later to help with law school.
In Spokane, she has worked as a law clerk, a federal staff attorney, a bond attorney and a litigator. She co-chairs a national judicial workshop on gender equality and led a nationally recognized task force on how federal court can deal with the flood of prisoner lawsuits.
Imbrogno defers all praise to her Gonzaga education and mentors such as former U.S. Attorney Jim Gillespie and Senior District Judge Justin Quackenbush.
The senior judge, now semi-retired, made diversity a priority on his staff. He bent to employees’ personal needs, allowing Imbrogno to bring her son to work in a playpen during a child-care crisis, even feeding her infant son a bottle.
“There may be a picture of that, at least I hope there is,” he quipped.
Imbrogno is married to Douglas Attwood, an attorney who for the past eight years has stayed home to care for their son, Adam, 11.
Midway through an eight-year term as magistrate, she has still not outgrown the call to teach. Her work on gender and race issues is based around educating people, including firm reminders to attorneys not to call women in her court by their first names.
“Our protocol is to use surnames,” she reminds them.
She also visits classrooms, gives professional legal workshops and national lectures and is the annual citizenship speaker at Centennial Middle School.
The “warmest fuzziest” moment in her life came when she was asked to give the commencement address to the Kane High School class of 1994. She told students:
Only four priorities are important: family, beliefs, work (inside or outside the home) and community.
Only two things are formulas for self-respect: to do your best and participate.
Only one person is responsible for your happiness: you. “Within you is everything you will need to make your dreams come true.”
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