Before Frances Muñoz became the first Latina judge in California history, she appeared in an Orange County courtroom as a public defender representing a young Latino during his arraignment in a criminal case.
Muñoz tried to convince Judge Ken Williams, who had a reputation as a ruthless and disrespectful lawyer, to let her client be released on her own recognizance.
“If you are so sure that he is not a danger to society,” retorted the judge, “I will release him to you.”
Muñoz agreed and took the young man into her home – but kept her kitchen knives just in case. At the next court hearing, she announced that the client had not caused her any trouble.
The story of Muñoz’s brave, oversized heart became part of Orange County courtroom lore, especially as she followed through by taking her own place on the dock and in history.
On January 25, 1978, Governor Jerry Brown appointed her a judge in the Harbor Judicial District in Newport Beach, a first for a Latina in California and possibly the nation.
Muñoz, who served on the bench for 23 years before retiring in 2001, died Oct. 17 of cardiac arrest after a lifetime of advocacy for law, education and immigration reform. She was 92.
“I found her to be calm and level-headed,” said Frederick Aguirre, a former Orange County Superior Court judge who considered Muñoz a close friend. “She didn’t rush her decisions.
The fifth of 11 siblings, Muñoz was born on September 17, 1930 in the mining town of Miami, Arizona.
Her father, a Mexican immigrant from the state of Jalisco, later moved the family to Puritan, Colombia, where he worked as a miner.
In 1941 the family moved again, this time to California, settling in Corona. The Muñoz children, including Frances, attended segregated Mexican schools while their father worked as an agricultural picker.
Due to the inequalities, she was the first of her siblings to graduate from high school.
Afterwards, Muñoz lived in Echo Park and managed a furniture store in Los Angeles. She took night classes at Los Angeles City College while her brother Gregory moved in with her at UCLA.
Muñoz encouraged him to study law and helped pay for his education through real estate investments she made.
“She put a bug in my ear and kept it there until I graduated from law school,” Gregory told The Times in 2000.
At 40, Muñoz earned her own law degree from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles after attending UCLA.
She followed her brother to Orange County, where he established a private practice. In 1972, she was the first Latina and only the second woman employed in the regional office of the public defender of rights.
Along with other Latino lawyers, Muñoz helped found the Orange County Mexican American Lawyers Club in 1974, which was later renamed the Hispanic Bar Assn. from Orange County.
“One of our primary goals was to ensure that Latinos who were qualified and experienced were appointed or elected to the bench at that time,” Aguirre said.
Four years later, Brown named Muñoz to history.
Aguirre believes Muñoz was the first Latino trial judge in the country before Carmen B. Ciparik was appointed to the Criminal Court of New York City by Mayor Ed Koch later in 1978 and the subsequent election of New Mexico Judge Patricia Madrid.
Outside of the courtroom, Muñoz devoted her free time to community advocacy.
From a modest office in the Catholic Church of St. Joachim in Costa Mesa has helped many immigrants living in the U.S. illegally apply for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
Muñoz has shown a passion for youth through educational advocacy. She tutored students at Madison Elementary School in Santa Ana and in 1989 started her own Extended Education for Excellence program.
In 1993, Muñoz founded the Hispanic Education Endowment Fund, which offers scholarships to first-generation college students in Orange County.
“The organization she started didn’t just give me a scholarship, it gave me the confidence to believe in my education and believe in myself,” said Camilo Romero, who attended UC Berkeley in 2000 before becoming a lawyer and befriending Muñoz.
Since 1993, $3.8 million in financial aid has been distributed through about 2,600 scholarships.
“Judge Muñoz has been a very strong advocate and has been adept at bringing together influential leaders to support first-generation students and their families,” said Monica Guillena, the fund’s administrative director.
Muñoz also co-founded the Luévano Foundation, a charitable group that awards scholarships to Latino students who could not otherwise afford to attend Catholic schools in the county.
“Francis felt that the most important thing in life was education for children and that family came first,” said Vera Muñoz-Harrison, her sister. “She felt honored to serve immigrants and the community.”
Gregory joined his sister on the bench when he was appointed Orange County Superior Court Judge in 1999 by Governor Gray Davis. He served for 14 years before retiring. He died last year aged 83 after battling Parkinson’s disease.
Frances Muñoz continued as an assigned judge until she was 86 years old. She has collected numerous honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Bar Assn. of Orange County and the Spirit Award for Achievement in Law and Public Service from the California Latino Legislative Caucus.
“She was well prepared, professional, ethical and just a great colleague,” said U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who was Muñoz’s supervising judge.
Two years ago, Muñoz appeared in the “Poderosas” mural project in Costa Mesa, which honored Latino people including labor leader Dolores Huerta and Sylvia Mendez, who integrated a Mexican school in Westminster after a landmark civil rights lawsuit.
“The wall honors her legacy as a proud advocate and judge,” said Romero, whose family home provided the brick wall that served as a canvas. “It served as a tribute to a woman whose unassuming nature otherwise belies her incredible life story.”
On her 90th birthday, Muñoz was surprised by the early unveiling of a digital portrait of herself by local artist Alicia Rojas.
“Being first is not as important as not being last,” Muñoz said that day. “The legal profession, especially the bench, has a long way to go to reflect our community. Maybe then the contributions of our immigrant families will be truly appreciated.”
Muñoz was never married and had no children. She is survived by four sisters as well as 25 nephews and nieces.