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In a career of firsts, a last approaches for Superior Court judge

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

First female judge. First female deputy district attorney. First female to prosecute a murder case. First prosecutor to use DNA evidence in a trial. First Hispanic judge since the 1850s.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Teresa Estrada-Mullaney has held all those titles — and more — in the county’s legal community.

Now, after 20 years on the bench, she will retire Jan. 25. She turns 65 in December.

Estrada-Mullaney is known for her direct approach and for breaking new ground.

“Judge Estrada-Mullaney has been a trailblazer and a role model for so many people in our community,” District Attorney Gerald Shea said in a statement. “Our office has great appreciation for her service to the county, first as a dedicated prosecutor for 11 years and then for the past 20 years, as a thoughtful, no-nonsense, and even-handed judicial officer.”

A Democrat appointed by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1992, Estrada-Mullaney has handled the full spectrum of legal cases assigned to local judges — criminal, civil, family and juvenile.

She’s known for giving little leniency in sentencing violent and sexual criminals.

In 1996, Estrada-Mullaney sent away a repeat sexual offender, convicted of raping an exotic dancer at knifepoint, to 84 years in state prison just before the enactment of the state’s three strikes law.

In 2005, she sentenced a 14-year-old boy who beat to death an 87-year-old man to a state juvenile prison for at least five years. A defense lawyer had requested his placement in a private institution, where the boy would have received counseling.

She developed a reputation for stern enforcement of respect and decorum in her court.

And at times her clashes caught the public’s eye — including a sparring match with a local radio talk show host for his refusal to address her as “judge” in a campaign forum.

Her lists of courtroom “do nots” included a refusal to allow a lawyer to call an adult woman “a girl” when the commonplace practice isn’t to call an adult male a “boy.”

The UCLA law school graduate credits her parents — Mexican immigrants who spoke Spanish in the home — for instilling in her a strong work ethic and an appreciation for education.

“I’m proud to say that I’ve had a wonderful career and I have worked with many great people in a profession that I stumbled into,” Estrada-Mullaney said at a recent reception for her hosted by the Women Lawyers Association of San Luis Obispo County.

Teaching was goal

Estrada-Mullaney grew up in East Los Angeles, Compton, and San Fernando Valley, where she attended high school.

Her father, Nicolas, worked as a salesman with Encyclopaedia Brittanica and went to college later in life, graduating magna cum laude from Cal State Northridge at age 60.

He had a second career as a Spanish language court interpreter before he died in his 90s.

Estrada-Mullaney initially wanted to become a teacher. But the job market wasn’t promising after she earned her undergraduate degree from Loyola Marymount University.

Looking for alternative employment, Estrada-Mullaney decided to become a lawyer out of a “sibling rivalry” because her brother chose law for his career.

The woman who later would be recognized for her aggressive prosecutions of sexual predators, spousal abusers and killers ironically started out thinking she’d be a public defender.

After law school, Estrada-Mullaney applied for a position with the Orange County Public Defender’s Office. But when she wasn’t initially offered a job, she went to work for two years with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

She and her husband, school administrator Jim Mullaney, now retired, moved to San Luis Obispo County in 1981 because “it’s such as beautiful place,” and she started looking for work. They have been together for 45 years.

DA’s Office

As a new county prosecutor, Estrada-Mullaney took a keen interest in children victimized by crime, as well as domestic violence cases.

“I assigned difficult cases (to her) with full confidence that she would achieve justice for the people of this community,” said Barry LaBarbera, her former boss who’s now a Superior Court judge.

In 1984, she handled about 50 child-molestation cases, meeting in victims’ homes, at the park, at her office — wherever they felt comfortable.

During interviews with the children about their cases, she’d start off talking about pets, friends, families to help ease the trauma. Sometimes interviews lasted half a day.

The job is sometimes stressful, she told the Telegram-Tribune in 1985, “because you want to appear as calm as possible when you listen to the children and the horrible things that have been done to them.”

As a prosecutor in 1991, she tried the first local case using DNA evidence, arguing that the technology was reliable to connect the defendant to sex crimes.

After a six-month trial, a long period of time for any case, the man was convicted of raping two women and assaulting six others.

“I remember at the time DNA evidence wasn’t used commonly in court,” Estrada-Mullaney said. “I argued extensively for the evidence to be used.”

Highs and lows

Estrada-Mullaney used her training and experience as a lawyer to transition into a judgeship.

After her appointment in 1992, she heard misdemeanor cases as well as felony preliminary hearings before earning a seat as Superior Court judge.

In her election campaign in 1996, Estrada-Mullaney publicly clashed with radio host Dave Congalton during a forum. She thought he should have called her “judge” when using her name out of respect for the occupation.

Congalton said then that he never used people’s titles to level the playing field for candidates in public elections. Later, she announced that it was OK for him to call her by her name, even “Teresa or Terry,” though she hoped to be called “winner” in the end.

In another public feud in 1996, then-Deputy District Attorney John Trice, now a fellow Superior Court judge, told the Telegram-Tribune that he’d “never take another case into her courtroom” (using his right to disqualify her as a judge assigned to a case he handled) after he felt he’d been treated unfairly.

Trice publicly complained during a vehicular manslaughter case that she’d chided him for asking for more time to prepare for unexpected testimony, saying she had anticipated where the defense was headed.

Trice also said she accused him of handling the case like a misdemeanor and had him apologize in front of the jury for unprofessional behavior, according to a 1996 Tribune article.

“I think the case involved a very aggressive defense attorney in Ilan Funke-Bilu, I think I was perceived as an aggressive prosecutor, and she was an aggressive judge,” Trice said Tuesday. “I think we’ve all mellowed out a bit.”

Trice said that now he has a good relationship with Estrada-Mullaney, whom he calls a hard-working, dedicated judge. They’ve collaborated well together and she has been helpful to him, Trice said.

Estrada-Mullaney doesn’t comment about judicial decisions. But she acknowledges that her job has been challenging at times. She has relied on the emotional support of her husband, whom she credits for his encouragement.

Some of her most rewarding moments as a judge, Estrada-Mullaney said, have been working with families in Juvenile Court, where children are assigned to programs, treatments and family situations that have helped turn their lives around.

“Her first love was Juvenile Court,” said Angie King, a fellow member of the county’s Women Lawyers Association. “She told me she would have stayed there her entire career if she could have. She would, for many years, have Christmas dinner with the wards at Juvenile Hall.”

Estrada-Mullaney sits on the state Supreme Court’s committee on judicial ethics and was honored as an influential person in 2006 in the Latino Today publication.

She said she has been particularly pleased at the increasing number of women entering the legal profession over the years and hopes to see the trend “continue to improve.”

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