As he looks back over what he’s accomplished in two-and-a-half decades as a judge, Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez is modest.
He cites a saying in Spanish, that translates to, “I contribute my grain of sand to the greater work.”
Gutierrez, Idaho’s first Latino judge, plans to retire at the end of the year, largely for family reasons. Two of his nine grandchildren, ages 9 and 10, have a disease that will cause them suffering and limit their lifespan; his daughter has the adult version of the malady.
“I wanted to be more present in their lives,” he said simply.
For more than two decades, he’s been present in the life of Idaho’s justice system, and not in just a modest way.
He’s led a major, decadeslong initiative to improve the quality of court interpreters in Idaho, in the name of ensuring access to justice for all; and he co-chaired a push to enhance judicial recruitment in the state that’s led to broader and more diverse pools of candidates for Idaho judgeships — including this year, for the first time, a pool of candidates for an opening on the Idaho Supreme Court that includes more women than men.
“I am, you would say, an over-achiever in many respects, and I am an ambitious man,” said Gutierrez, 64, “but there is a difference between being ambitious for the greater good as opposed to personal ambition. There is within me just a great desire to be of service to our community.”
Returning to the grain of sand metaphor, he said, “So what I’ve been a part of is much more than Sergio or the judge. It’s joining forces in our judicial system, serving the people in the best way possible.”
Gutierrez had a humble beginning. Brought to the United States from Mexico as a 1-year-old — the family came in legally as permanent residents, brought in by his adopted father, a U.S.-born citizen — Gutierrez’s family struggled to provide for 13 children. He and a sister were raised by his grandmother in New Mexico; he first learned to read, before school, when she gave him a Spanish-language New Testament.
She died when he was in junior high, and he rejoined his family in Stockton, California. Previously a good student despite early trouble with a speech impediment, the quiet, book-loving Gutierrez was surprised to be placed in classes for troubled kids.
He’d worked in the farm fields on and off since age 8, so, seeing his family’s struggles, he decided to drop out of school in the 9th grade and go to work. At age 15, he earned enough over the summer to buy a car — a ’63 Chevy Impala SuperSport two-door hardtop. “For a young Latino boy, that was precious,” he said.
But by age 16, he was struggling to find work. In his frequent visits to the local job service office, a woman there told him about Job Corps, the federal residential program for youth ages 16-24 that provides education and vocational training at centers around the country. He signed up and was sent to Glide, Oregon. There, he earned a G.E.D. and did construction work, building dorm buildings at the center and restrooms and picnic tables for forest campgrounds.
When counselors there asked him his goals, he said he wanted to go to college and become an architect; they said they’d never heard that answer before.
As a Job Corps graduate, he applied to universities in northern California and Oregon but was rejected, for lack of required high school course work. So he returned to Stockton and his family and enrolled in community college.
“It was a struggle,” he said. The family didn’t have enough to eat; his brothers were getting into serious trouble.
Gutierrez decided to quit school again and try working; he got some training as a mechanic, met a young woman and started a family. But he could find only odd jobs and struggled to provide for his wife and daughter.
He sold the precious and much-loved car, and the young family moved first to Yakima to work for his uncle, who owned several restaurants, and then to Bellingham, where he found work at a maintenance company. He quickly rose to supervisor, but his wife didn’t care for the rainy weather. A pastor from his church had moved to Boise, and the Gutierrezes visited and liked the sunny weather.
He found work with the Idaho Migrant Council, working with farm workers and their families, then both he and his wife began working as teachers’ aides in Nampa schools. There, the two were recruited for a new Boise State University program training bilingual teachers.
Gutierrez recalled sitting with a group of Spanish-speaking fifth-graders, asking them what they wanted to be. Few had ambitions; one boy turned the question on Gutierrez.
“I said I’m studying to be a teacher,” he said. “His eyes got big, and he said, ‘That can’t be. Look around here — there are no Mexican teachers.’ And in those days, that was true.”
“That stayed with me,” he said, “about what it means to have someone imagine themselves advancing in this country, in society.”
Gutierrez worked full time as he attended Boise State; midway through college, he went to work for Idaho Legal Aid Services, doing outreach to farm workers.
“We had some lawyers that spoke Spanish, but in terms of Latino lawyers who knew the culture, there were just a few,” he said. “I strongly felt the desire to become an advocate for them and go to law school.”
He finished college early, graduating cum laude, and enrolled at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, but during his first year, there was a strike in the Nampa School District and his wife found herself out of work. He still breaks down in tears remembering it; he was convinced he needed to quit school and return home. “She wrote me a letter — said I found this money in the mailbox, it didn’t say from who,” he recalled. So the family was OK.
By his second year of law school, he was able to bring his family down to join him. One highlight during law school was serving an externship for then-California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso. After graduating, he returned to Nampa, where a job as a lawyer for Legal Aid Services awaited him.
He worked there happily for years, then was recruited by a Boise law firm that was expanding its outreach to the Latino community, which was “growing tremendously,” Gutierrez said. “There was a need for representation outside the farm worker community.”
When one of the partners in the firm was appointed a magistrate judge in Orofino, the firm broke up, and Gutierrez purchased the practice, continuing it for several years as a solo practice based in Caldwell. When a local judge retired, friends and colleagues urged the local lawyer to apply for the judgeship; he did and was appointed by Gov. Cecil Andrus. Less than a year later, he faced a contested election to keep the post.
“It was quite an experience of going out to the community, someone who is so much of an introvert,” he said. “I was able to come out ahead. … I enjoyed very much and appreciated the support the community gave me.”
He handled about 500 cases a year as a trial judge, including tough criminal cases. “The trial court work was a challenge for me,” he said. “I’m more deliberate — I like to study things. … Things were just happening quickly, and you had to make decisions quickly.”
When there was an opening on the state Court of Appeals, Gutierrez thought he could draw on his love for reading and writing more in his work, “and I could grow and contribute, as well.”
He was nominated by the Idaho Judicial Council. “My interview with Gov. (Dirk) Kempthorne, he said, ‘I’m very impressed — I’ve talked to the defense bar, the plaintiffs bar, the public defender’s office, and the prosecutor’s office, and they all hold you in high regard.’”
Gutierrez said his years as an Appeals Court judge have been his “dream job,” working with the other appellate judges, hearing appeals and writing opinions.
But he also was very interested all along in making changes to the system that would make it more responsive and of service to all Idahoans — and the job lent itself to that, as well.
That desire also was behind his drive to move up to the state’s highest court, the Idaho Supreme Court. He ran for the high court in 2016 but lost in a four-way match-up, despite having among the highest marks in bar surveys ranking the qualifications of the candidates. He also applied three times for vacancies on the high court, once each in 2017, 2007 and 1993.
During his final Judicial Council interview in 2017, Gutierrez was questioned about his multiple appearances before the council, which vets judicial candidates, suggesting he’d been unsuccessful there seven times. Actually, his appearances there included his successful interviews for his appointment as a 3rd District judge and as a Court of Appeals judge.
He debated how to handle the matter but decided to just let it be. “I do not want to go out on a negative note,” he said. “So to me, it’s not something that really requires more than my just trying to clarify the record.”
Gutierrez said he likes to think of his vision of justice as “restorative justice.” Courts should not just handle conflicts that arise, he said. “You’re looking to put people in a better place than when they came in.”
Not far from his chambers at the Idaho Court of Appeals, there’s now an Idaho Supreme Court office where a manager oversees a system for testing and certifying those who translate for people caught up in Idaho’s court system who don’t understand English.
“It’s not unusual that we cover, in the state, over 50 different languages, in providing services to litigants,” Gutierrez said.
That was far from the case when he first started out as an Idaho judge. Not long after he took the bench in 1993, Gutierrez traveled from Canyon County to Weiser to preside over his first murder trial. There, he found that the court interpreter assigned to the Spanish-speaking defendant wasn’t translating accurately. “And of course, I know Spanish,” Gutierrez said — it was his first language.
Trying to be tactful, the new judge told the court officials, “This interpreter is not going to work — if we’re going to have a trial, I need a real interpreter, someone who’s competent.”
“They said, ‘He’s always done our interpretation,’” Gutierrez recalled.
“That case clued me in,” he said, that his interest and concern about Idaho’s court system went beyond hearing cases, to the administration of justice overall in the state.
“I always thought of my work, to make structural changes, those that go beyond the person and make institutional change.”
The development of a reliable statewide court interpreter program is a goal Gutierrez is pleased to say finally has been achieved, to ensure the quality of the service of “those individuals who play such a critical role in the processing of court cases, from the beginning to the end.”
“It has been realized,” he said, though he added, “There is much work to be done, of course.”
His work to enhance judicial recruitment in Idaho also was “tied to my overall desire to create equity within our society,” Gutierrez said. The bench, he said, should be “representative of our community.”
He and then-Court of Appeals Judge Karen Lansing convened a committee and developed a report with far-reaching recommendations.
“I would tell you that Gov. Otter took that to heart,” Gutierrez said, and was able to use it as a tool in his evaluation and appointment of judges from the finalists the Judicial Council recommends.
Otter, in a recent interview, cited Gutierrez’s work on that and said it helped improve the overall quality of the candidates for judge that appeared on his desk.
Gutierrez said as he departs, there are challenges that remain for those who come after him to take on.
“The state has grown tremendously,” he noted. “The work of the courts has also had to be responsive,” not just in deciding cases, but making sure the system as a whole is administered in a way that serves everyone in Idaho, even as the state grows.
“That’s where the access to justice challenge lies,” he said, “and how do we ensure that the doors of our courthouses remain open to all.”
Gutierrez said early in his career, he was convinced that the judicial council vetting process was the best way to select judges. But after going through contested elections as well, he’s grown in his appreciation for their value.
“I began to realize that the contested election really is important in communicating the judicial system to the citizens, because they get to know more of the candidates, they get to inquire about the work we do,” he said. That can break down misperceptions about the role of the courts and how they work, he said.
“What I do believe is important is that we operate in a way that the trust and confidence in the process is at as high a level as we can get it.”
Gutierrez also has been active in educational programs over the years, including helping create the diversity section of the Idaho State Bar and its “Love the Law” program, which offers presentations to disadvantaged high school students each year to expose them to the law and courts.
“I see that that is really paying dividends,” he said, “as I’ve seen the increase in enrollment of minority law students at the University of Idaho and Concordia. It gives me great joy to see that.”
He’s also been active in the Idaho Latino Scholarship Foundation and the Hispanic Youth Symposium. A current issue, he said, is that “we have lower numbers of Latino males going on to college than we have Latina females.”
Once he retires, he said he’ll likely step back from most commitments.
“My role as grandparent was more important,” he said. “You should see the kids and their relationship with me. … I have such love and appreciation for the grandmother who raised me, a great example for what a grandparent should be.”
Gutierrez said as he contemplates retirement, he’s also deeply grateful for the support he’s received over the years from the Canyon County community, from back when an introverted young man had to seek out votes in a contested election for judge to everything he’s done since.
“Their support to me has been invaluable,” he said, “in terms of not only forming a judge, but forming this man.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter