Two Stanford Law School alumnae, Justice Patricia Guerrero, JD ’97, and Judge Sunshine Sykes, JD ’01 (BA ’97), were among four women jurists honored by the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association with the organization’s annual Trailblazers in the Law award. The winners were recognized during a one-hour panel discussion held via Zoom on December 6, 2022, with more than 100 in attendance.
The panel focused on the winners’ formative personal and professional experiences and on tackling structural racism and implicit bias. All award winners were “first ever” judges or justices in their respective jurisdictions.
Guerrero was the first Latina to serve on California’s Supreme Court. Appointed by Governor Newsom in March 2022, she quickly ascended to the role of Chief Justice with a term that begins in January 2023, at which point she becomes the state’s first Latina Chief Justice.
Sykes, a member of the Navajo nation, was elevated to the Central District of California in May 2022, making her the first Native American to sit on a federal district court in California. Nationwide, she is the seventh Native American federal judge ever appointed. Previously, she sat on the California Superior Court and was the first Native American to serve on the court in Riverside, having been appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013. (Read more about Judge Sykes in a 2017 Stanford Lawyer profile.)
In a discussion of mentors who inspired the winners’ professional development, Sykes noted the influence of SLS’s Michael Wald, the Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, emeritus, who “validated what I wanted to do with my law degree and [helped] me along the way in regards to working over the summer in public interest law, going back to my reservation, and doing the things I wanted to do.” She also recounted the formative experience of growing up in impoverished Gallup, New Mexico, with divorced parents and observing from a young age how people treated her non-Native father with greater respect and deference than her Native mother, and how she was, in turn, treated differently depending on which parent she was with at the time.
Guerrero, the daughter of Mexican immigrants with little formal education, also spoke about how growing up in a poor border town informed her life and career. “Both of my parents grew up in real poverty, but they always taught us the importance of helping other people,” says Guerrero, who was raised in Southern California’s Imperial Valley. “I spent a lot of my childhood going back and forth to Mexico, visiting family and helping them with food and clothing. Even though we didn’t have a lot ourselves, I was struck by the differences between Mexico and the United States. It really shaped me in terms of showing me the importance of family, of hard work, and of perseverance.”
Stanford University also was represented by award-winner Judge Holly Thomas (BA ’00), the first Black woman from California to serve on the Ninth Circuit and the second Black woman to ever serve on the Ninth Circuit. Rounding out the panel was Judge Lucy Koh, the first Korean-American woman to serve as a federal appellate judge and the second Asian Pacific American woman to serve on the Ninth Circuit from California.