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News >  Idaho

Gutierrez runs for justice on court-access platform

Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez awaits his turn to speak at a recent candidate forum sponsored by the Idaho State Bar; he’s among four candidates vying for an open seat on the Idaho Supreme Court. (Betsy Z. Russell)
Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez awaits his turn to speak at a recent candidate forum sponsored by the Idaho State Bar; he’s among four candidates vying for an open seat on the Idaho Supreme Court. (Betsy Z. Russell)

When newly appointed Idaho Judge Sergio Gutierrez traveled from Canyon County to Weiser to preside over his first murder trial in 1993, he was surprised by what he found there.

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 prompted the young judge – Idaho’s first Latino judge – to push for a new statewide initiative to set competency standards, and require testing, for all court interpreters. Now a judge on the state Court of Appeals, Gutierrez was gratified this year to see the state Legislature finally fund a position to coordinate the statewide court interpreter program. But he’s also concerned that it took this long – it’s been 26 years.

“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. That’s why he’s running this year for an open seat on the Idaho Supreme Court, facing off with three other candidates.

Gutierrez said he’s been able to push for reforms in the court system overall as a Court of Appeals judge, a member of the state’s second-highest court, but would be able to do even more as one of the five justices on the state’s highest court, which oversees the court system statewide.

“I’m fortunate to work in what I consider to be a court system that’s much more responsive to its citizens than other states,” Gutierrez said. “But the access issue is one that has always been a focus of mine. It’s a challenge for someone to decide to pursue a claim in court, because the cost of litigation is so high.”

Gutierrez, 61, 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’ 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.

“I remember going into a Safeway store to steal a can of sardines for lunch as I was going to school,” Gutierrez recalled. “The police picked me up.” They drove him home to his family’s place in a run-down neighborhood known as “Okieville,” and the officer asked to speak to a parent. Gutierrez’ mother came out; she spoke no English.

The officer asked his older sister to translate, but as the officer related what the young man had done, “My sister’s telling her a different story – that he was just being a good community policeman, giving me a ride home.”

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, and 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 5th 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 BSU; 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 the past 15 years as an Appeals Court judge have been his “dream job,” working with the other appellate judges, hearing appeals and writing opinions.

Asked why he’s running for the Supreme Court if he’s already in his dream job, Gutierrez pointed again to administration of justice issues.

He and former Appeals Court Judge Karen Lansing were appointed to co-chair a committee on judicial recruitment in 2008, after judicial selection processes had been resulting in fewer and fewer nominees for each open judgeship.

“Our bar had no trust in the (selection) system,” he said. “People would not apply. … There were like 35 straight male appointments. Lawyers, especially women or minority lawyers, see that and say, ‘You can’t break through that – it’s not worthwhile.’”

The committee published its report in 2010, and judicial recruitment efforts have been stepped up, but Gutierrez still wants to do more – in that and many other areas.

He 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.”

Ernie Sanchez, the retired longtime director of Idaho Legal Aid Services, said, “I know a lot of judges in the state, and they all speak very highly of him.” Gutierrez, he said, is “non-political – in fact, I’ve known him all these years, I don’t even know his politics.”

Citing Gutierrez’ more than 20 years as a judge, Sanchez said he’d bring knowledge and court experience to the state’s highest court. “He’s small in stature, but he’s a giant – he’s got a brilliant mind,” he said. “I think he’d be a tremendous justice.”

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