Before becoming the first Latina trial judge in California history, Frances Muñoz appeared in an Orange County courtroom as a public defender, representing a young Latino during his arraignment in a criminal case.
Muñoz tried to persuade Judge Ken Williams, who had a reputation as a feisty and irreverent jurist, that her client should be released on his own recognizance.
“If you’re so confident that he’s not a danger to society,” the judge countered, “I’ll release him to you.”
Muñoz agreed and took the young man into her home — but hid her kitchen knives just in case. On the next court date, she reported that her client caused her no trouble.
The story of Muñoz’s daring, oversized heart became part of Orange County courtroom lore, especially as she followed by taking her own place on the bench and in history.
On Jan. 25, 1978, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her as a trial judge in the Harbor Judicial District in Newport Beach, a first for a Latina in California and perhaps the nation.
Muñoz, who served on the bench for 23 years before retiring in 2001, died Oct. 17 from cardiac arrest after a lifetime of advocacy in law, education and immigration reform. She was 92.
“I found her to be calm and deliberative,” said Frederick Aguirre, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge who counted Muñoz as a close friend. “She did not rush her decisions.”
The fifth of 11 siblings, Muñoz was born on Sept. 17, 1930, in the mining town of Miami, Ariz.
Her father, a Mexican immigrant from the state of Jalisco, later moved the family to Puritan, Colo., where he worked as a coal miner.
In 1941, the family moved again, this time to California, where they settled in Corona. The Muñoz children, including Frances, attended segregated Mexican schools while their father worked as an agricultural picker.
Through the inequities, she was the first among her siblings to graduate from high school.
Afterward, Muñoz lived in Echo Park while managing a furniture store in Los Angeles. She took night classes at Los Angeles City College while her brother Gregory moved in with her to attend UCLA.
Muñoz encouraged him to study law and helped pay for his education through real estate investments she had made.
“She put the bug in my ear and kept it there until I finished law school,” Gregory told The Times in 2000.
At 40, Muñoz earned a law degree of her own from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles after attending UCLA.
She followed her brother to Orange County ,where he had started a private practice. In 1972, she was the first Latina and only the second woman to be employed at the county’s public defender’s office.
Alongside other Latino legal professionals, Muñoz helped found the Orange County Mexican American Lawyers Club in 1974, which would later be renamed the Hispanic Bar Assn. of Orange County.
“One of our primary goals was to ensure that Latinos who were qualified and experienced were being appointed or elected to the bench at that time,” Aguirre said.
Four years later, Brown made his history-making appointment of Muñoz.
Aguirre believes Muñoz was the first Latina trial judge in the nation, coming before Carmen B. Ciparik was named to the Criminal Court of New York CIty by Mayor Ed Koch later in 1978 and the subsequent election of Judge Patricia Madrid in New Mexico.
Outside the courtroom, Muñoz dedicated her free time to community advocacy.
From a humble office inside St. Joachim Catholic Church in Costa Mesa, she helped numerous immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to apply for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
Muñoz showed a passion for youth through educational advocacy. She tutored students at Madison Elementary in Santa Ana and started her own Extended Education for Excellence program in 1989.
In 1993, Muñoz established the Hispanic Education Endowment Fund, which offers scholarships to first-generation college students in Orange County.
“The organization she founded 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 an attorney and befriending Muñoz.
Since 1993, $3.8 million in financial assistance has been distributed through about 2,600 scholarships.
“Judge Muñoz was a very powerful advocate and was skilled at bringing influential leaders together in support of first-generation students and their families,” said Monica Guillena, administrative director for the fund.
Muñoz also co-founded the Luévano Foundation, a charitable group that awards scholarships to Latino students who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend Catholic schools in the county.
“Francis felt 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 Gov. Gray Davis appointed him to be an Orange County Superior Court judge in 1999. He served for 14 years before retiring. He died last year at 83 while battling Parkinson’s disease.
Frances Muñoz continued as an assigned judge until she was 86. She collected numerous honorifics, including a lifetime achievement award from the Hispanic Bar Assn. of Orange County and a spirit award for achievement in law and public service from the California Latino Legislative Caucus.
“She was well-prepared, professional, ethical, and just a wonderful colleague,” said U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who was Muñoz’s supervising judge.
Two years ago, Muñoz was featured in a “Poderosas” mural project in Costa Mesa that honored Latinas including labor leader Dolores Huerta and Sylvia Mendez, who integrated a Mexican school in Westminster following 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 with an early unveiling of her digital portrait by local artist Alicia Rojas.
“Being the first is not as important as not being the last,” Muñoz said that day. “The legal profession, particularly the bench, still has a long way to go to reflect our community. Perhaps then, the contributions of our immigrant families will truly be valued.”
Muñoz was never married and had no children. She is survived by four sisters as well as 25 nephews and nieces.