While visiting his relatives in Guatemala as a child, Martin Estrada and his family were held up at gunpoint—a terrifying ordeal that sparked his interest in the law. Now 45, he remembers the experience vividly, especially how the local authorities responded.
“They just laughed,” recalls Estrada, JD ’02. “They weren’t going to do anything. In Guatemala, the law just wasn’t meant for people who didn’t have money and power.”
Seeing firsthand a flawed legal system in his parents’ native country inspired him to become a lawyer dedicated to public service. Today, as the United States Attorney for the Central District of California—the largest district in the country, serving seven counties and nearly 20 million people—Estrada does just that. He was nominated by President Joe Biden and unanimously confirmed by the Senate in September.
“To be a Latino who is connected to his community and fluent in Spanish and has worked for years doing pro bono public interest work, it meant a lot to me,” Estrada says of his confirmation.
After his parents and siblings emigrated to the United States, Estrada grew up in Orange County, California, where his parents worked as a pediatrician and a Spanish teacher.
Since his confirmation, Estrada has focused the work of his office on a range of issues including civil rights violations, public corruption, corporate fraud, consumer protection, organized and violent crime, and national security threats. And he has prioritized outreach to marginalized communities and people of color—through media and community outreach—and increasing the diversity of the office.
“Before Martin Luther King Day weekend, we announced the largest ever redlining settlement in the history of the Department of Justice,” Estrada says. “Redlining is basically the practice by mortgage lenders of discriminating against borrowers based on race, national origin, ethnicity, or other impermissible grounds, and we were able to bring this case against City National Bank.”
His office also announced federal hate crime charges in February against an individual for allegedly targeting and shooting Jewish congregants as they left two Los Angeles synagogues.
“We’re in the business of bringing the most impactful cases in the country that are going to have a beneficial effect in our communities,” he says.
Estrada’s efforts at the U.S. attorney’s office are grounded in his experiences at Stanford Law School—specifically his coursework in federal litigation and white-collar crime and his participation in the Criminal Prosecution Clinic.
“Professor George Fisher’s clinic impressed upon us the consequences of the criminal justice system and how the penalties are not to be treated lightly,” Estrada says. “So, when one is exercising prosecutorial discretion, it is important to realize how it should be applied appropriately and with proper judgment.”
And yet there were times, as one of the few Latinos at SLS, Estrada questioned whether he belonged. When doubts cropped up, he reminded himself that he had enrolled in law school to help his community.
After his 1L year, Estrada scored an externship at the U.S. attorney’s office in Santa Ana. The cases that interested him most involved racial justice and public corruption, and he returned to Stanford with renewed conviction. He went on to clerk for U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin of the Central District of California and Judge Arthur L. Alarcón of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“We’re in the business of bringing the most impactful cases in the country that are going to have a beneficial effect in our communities.” —Martin Estrada, JD ’02
SLS jump-started Estrada’s career—and introduced him to Kerry O’Neill, JD ’02, the woman he would marry and the mother of their three sons.
“I remember he used to volunteer consistently at the Stanford Community Law Clinic and the Immigration Rights Clinic,” says O’Neill, a lecturer at UCLA Law School. “He also volunteered to teach chess at the Boys and Girls Club. Those things really impressed me when I first met him.”
After graduating, Estrada joined Munger, Tolles & Olson, where, among other work, he argued two immigration cases before the Ninth Circuit and took on substantial pro bono work.
In 2007, Estrada became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District, serving as deputy chief of the violent and organized crime section and international organized crime coordinator.
“That work was really a passion for me, because of the victims that were involved,” Estrada says. “We were focused on protecting victims from horrible and damaging crimes.”
Returning to Munger, Tolles & Olson in 2014 as a partner, he did trial work and complex litigation while continuing to pursue pro bono cases involving education and immigration, including a first-of-its-kind education rights victory against the State of New Mexico.
“For someone like Martin, who comes from a modest background, to have done really well at Stanford and fit in at Munger and engaged in some significant education-related litigation and now to be at the U.S. attorney’s office where he’s making a strong effort to reach out to the public and be visible—it all fits a pattern that tells you who he is,” says Carlos Moreno, JD ’75, a retired associate justice of the California Supreme Court and former ambassador to Belize.
One of Estrada’s best-known pro bono cases dates back to 1912 when a Black family lost its resort and its land, known as Bruce’s Beach, during an unfair legal process. Estrada led the litigation team that defeated a lawsuit that sought to prevent the county from returning the land to the Bruce family.
“He was really devoted to correcting this wrong and making sure that this deal to return the land to the Bruce family was able to go through,” O’Neill says. “But something that was really remarkable was that there was a young associate on the case, an African American woman who had worked hard on the matter, and he asked her to share oral argument time with him. That just reflects on who he is as a person and as a leader, too.”
Months later, Estrada was confirmed as U.S. attorney. He hopes his new role teaches Latino youth to aim high.
“As the son of immigrants from Guatemala,” Estrada says, “I’ve always taken the time to speak with students of color about the importance of being a professional and how this country can give you the opportunity to succeed and eventually become a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney.” SL
Nadra Nittle is a reporter for The 19th News and former reporter for Vox Media.