Magistrate Judge Took Unconventional Path to Federal Bench
Jim Houpt; Photos by Linda Partmann
new United States Magistrate Judge
has taken her place in Sacramento's federal court. If it was not
obvious before her March 28 investiture, the standing-room-only
crowd and the overflow outside the ceremonial courtroom show that
the Eastern District Judges made a popular appointment in elevating
Sacramento Attorney Kim Mueller to a judgeship.
Mueller's new colleagues gave her a round of applause at her investiture.
Mueller's judicial demeanor, sharp intellect, and diplomatic skills
seemed to destine her for the opening created by the retirement
of Magistrate Judge John Moulds. But, like others who have discovered
law after another career, destiny might have been cheated on numerous
occasions in Judge Mueller's non-traditional path to a legal career.
I joined Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in 1997, the
future judge was already a legend at the firm. As only a junior
associate at Orrick, Ms. Mueller was fresh from winning an injunction
against Dow Jones and its illustrious Wall Street Journal.
The WSJ was launching a series of state-by-state inserts. In California,
the insert would be known as the California Journal. But
a small, well-established political magazine already claimed that
Mueller, Andy Stroud of Mennemeier, Glassman & Stroud,
and Norm Hile of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.
Ms. Mueller was only two years out of law school, the California
Journal sought her help. But Ms. Mueller's efforts to negotiate
with WSJ's lawyers, the venerable Los Angeles firm of Gibson,
Dunn & Crutcher, went nowhere. The WSJ, which once threatened
to sue an elementary school for using the playful title Small
Street Journal for a newsletter, was not intimidated by a young
associate from Sacramento. The WSJ would settle for nothing less
than the unqualified right to use California Journal. With the
help of Orrick Partner Norm Hile, Ms. Mueller engineered
first a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction
against the WSJ. After an unsuccessful writ and appeals from the
injunction, the WSJ settled, and Ms. Mueller saved the California
Journal's good name from encroachment.
victory assured Ms. Mueller's legendary status at Orrick. But
the legend was born not just from that single case. She had focused
intently on intellectual property. Though a fledgling lawyer in
a big firm, Ms. Mueller was attracting her own clients. Norm Hile
describes her as a "really talented litigator whether at
the trial level or appellate level." Though trials are usually
sparse in large firms, Ms. Mueller had taken an "amazing
number of cases to trial," Mr. Hile notes, "prevailing
over attorneys with twenty to thirty years' experience."
But a cutting-edge intellectual property practice was not Ms.
Mueller's only strength. "She knew everybody in the world,"
Mr. Hile recalls.
then as a junior associate, Ms. Mueller was candid and plain-spoken.
Ms. Mueller made no secret of her politics, her favored political
candidates, even her religious upbringing - topics that most of
us fear to raise even with close friends. Oddly, however, none
took offense. Ms. Mueller displayed an uncommon diplomacy, without
surrendering her own views. While interviewing Ms. Mueller for
this article, I was struck again by her candor. Pondering whether
she should discuss her religious background, Ms. Mueller demurred
that she always asks herself if it's an appropriate topic, but
concludes that it's fair game, "That's a part of who I am."
Mueller's parents married young while attending Bethel College,
a Mennonite school in North Newton, Kansas. They had had plans
to finish college and travel the world before starting their family.
Ms. Mueller upset those plans by arriving one year later, the
first of three daughters.
Magistrate Judge Kim Mueller posed for a photo with some members
of her family at her investiture.
born into a Mennonite family may have foreshadowed Ms. Mueller's
political interest. The Mennonites are a somewhat obscure, pacifist
sect that originated in Germany. Though earlier Mennonite generations
kept their distance from politics, the church has encouraged political
involvement in more recent times. One of the best known from the
later generations, Jesse Unruh - also born in Newton, Kansas --
became one of the California Assembly's most powerful speakers,
widely regarded for his political acumen.
college, and a short stop for Mr. Mueller to teach junior college
in Hutchinson, Kansas, Mr. and Mrs. Mueller brought their family
to Grinnell, Iowa where he taught ninth-grade social studies and
coached the wrestling team. After finishing a delayed masters'
degree, thanks in part to Kim's untimely arrival, Mrs. Mueller
first ran the local day care center and then became the fine arts
coordinator for Grinnell College.
was a great place to grow up," Judge Mueller enthuses. With
only 9,000 people in the town, the Mueller sisters walked the
town from one end to the other. "You knew the town inside
and out," she recalls. Despite pleasant memories of life
in the Midwest, Judge Mueller is unlikely to return soon for anything
but a visit to her parents, now retired back in North Newton to
be near her grandparents. "I had no perspective at the time,"
she explains, "I had no idea how hot and humid the summers
were, or how brutally cold were the winters. I also just wanted
to be away from home, not realizing that as I got older I'd wish
it were easier to go home for a visit."
horizon-broadening experience in 1975 changed Ms. Mueller's perception.
She finished high school in South Africa on a Rotary Club exchange
program. Returning to Iowa mid-year, Ms. Mueller began the search
for a suitable college. Her father wanted his eldest daughter
to stay home and attend Grinnell College. But at 17 years old,
after experiencing South Africa, she "was ready to be away
from home." A photograph in the Pomona College catalog piqued
her interest. "When I saw women in halter tops reading Plato
in the winter," she reveals, "I knew this was the place
to be." The photos showed California to be as beautiful as
South Africa, "but without apartheid," and Pomona College
was a solid liberal arts college. With her future planned, she
still had to fill a semester and summer before starting school,
so she took a job as society editor at the Grinnell Herald
Register in 1976.
a big country breakfast at her grandmother's house, the future
magistrate judge boarded a train in late summer 1976, headed for
Claremont in Southern California. At Pomona College, she majored
in the history of religions, spending a semester in Jerusalem,
and visiting the Sinai Peninsula. "I thought I'd get a masters
and maybe a Ph.D," she reminisces. Despite decent grades,
however, Ms. Mueller soon realized she wasn't the academic she
had imagined. But a chance encounter with two dynamic professors
inspired a new passion: public service.
Dan Mazmanian, taught a public policy course which had
students examine the gap between a law's intent and its implementation.
Mueller studied the Williamson Act, the California Land Conservation
Act of 1965, which allowed landowners to reduce tax assessments
by committing land to agricultural use or open space. She tried
to determine whether the Act was helping save - or not - the Chino
dairies near Claremont. Another professor, Jerry Moulds,
who had taught at the University of California, Davis, maintained
his ties with the Northern California community. Professor Moulds
signed Ms. Mueller up for the Food, Land and Power Program, funded
by the Kellogg Foundation, which placed students in public service
and government organizations. In the summer of 1981, a dozen Pomona
College students trekked to Davis to work as volunteers. The California
Agrarian Action Project was Ms. Mueller's assignment. CAAP's projects
included lobbying for public-records laws to improve access to
information about the use and risks of pesticides and other toxins.
The experience exposed Ms. Mueller to the legislative process,
lobbying the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the
Yolo County Board of Supervisors, and the Sacramento City Council
for improved information and access to public records.
by her brush with grassroots organizing and local politics, Ms.
Mueller pulled out the paper she had written on the Williamson,
which turned out to be another fortuity for Ms. Mueller's future
in public service. Toting her paper around Sacramento, she shopped
for a job. Coincidentally, the California Department of Conservation
was setting up a new Williamson Act unit, and Ms. Mueller hired
on as a graduate assistant. Steve Oliva, her boss in the
Legal Office, recalls a young woman who had to "hit the ground
running in her first government experience, and did." She
took on a difficult assignment "with vigor and with gusto,"
according to Mr. Oliva, coordinating the gathering of complex
assessment data from all of California's counties.
1983, intending to return to school, Ms. Mueller decided that
the law might provide the right kind of opportunities given her
new interests. So she took the Law School Admissions Test. Despite
acceptance to several law schools, fate intervened again to advance
Ms. Mueller's public-service career. Through her work with the
California Agrarian Project, and later volunteer work in the state
legislature, Ms. Mueller got to know firefighters who shared an
interest in preventing toxic exposures. By coincidence, the Federated
Firefighters of California (now the California Professional Firefighters),
was losing its Health and Safety Director to law school and the
firefighters approached Ms. Mueller. She seized the opportunity
and tabled her own law school plans. "I was having way too
much fun and learning a lot," she says. "I was pretty
convinced I wanted to work on public policy."
law school also allowed another opportunity to open up. After
working with Sacramento City Councilman Lloyd Connelly
(now a Sacramento Superior Court Judge) when she lobbied for the
California Agrarian Action Project, Ms. Mueller volunteered to
work on his Assembly campaign. Completing the form to indicate
what tasks she would accept, Ms. Mueller checked "everything"
-- including precinct-walking. Most volunteers, she explains,
don't like to walk precincts. But she enjoyed it. So precinct-walking
was a natural when she volunteered for Councilman Connelly and
then for other candidates. That inclination also meant that she
pounded pavement with the candidate. On one of those walks, a
particular candidate suggested that Ms. Mueller had a future in
the challenge with characteristic prudence, Ms. Mueller first
applied for an appointed position, the City Toxics Commission,
"to see if I liked being on that side of the podium."
She did. Ms. Mueller had bought her first home in the southeast
Sacramento neighborhood of Tahoe Park, Councilman Connelly's district.
Mr. Connelly had moved on from the same district to the California
Assembly four years earlier. Though Ms. Mueller had no particularly
strong gripes with the incumbent, she figured that voters should
have a choice-and Ms. Mueller became the voters' choice at the
the close of her first term, fate or fortune took a hand again.
Realizing that "I wasn't getting any younger," Ms. Mueller's
interest in law school resurfaced. But in the nine years since
she had taken the LSAT, the scoring system had changed. The University
of California wouldn't accept the older scores, but Stanford would
- so she applied to Stanford. While she awaited Stanford's response,
Ms. Mueller mulled the possibility of returning to school, still
intrigued by politics and her job.
deadline to declare her candidacy for reelection was May, and
the city council member had stalled her decision to file for re-election.
Darrell Steinberg wanted to run, but not with Ms. Mueller
as an opponent, and he was convinced that she had "every
intention" of running. On the eve of the filing deadline,
she received an invitation from Stanford Law School to start class
a few months later. No candidate had filed to oppose Ms. Mueller's
reelection. If she had opposition, she believes, Ms. Mueller would
have foregone law school to prove that she could prevail in a
contested election. At 10:00 p.m. the night before filing, she
called Mr. Steinberg with the news that she would start law school
in the fall, letting him know that the filing period for her seat
would be extended as a result. Now the Ninth District Assemblyman,
Mr. Steinberg credits Ms. Mueller for his political career. "If
not for her support," he theorizes, "I might not be
where I am today." His support for his city council predecessor
has not waned. "She's one of the brightest and most articulate
people I know," he says enthusiastically. "She understands
people - a real problem solver."
Mueller maintained her ties with Sacramento during law school.
In spring 1994, she served an externship at the Eastern District
for Judge David Levi where she assisted with law and motion,
and researched inmate civil rights cases. At her investiture,
Judge Levi noted that he was "immediately impressed"
by Ms. Mueller, when he first met her before law school and during
Mueller returned to Sacramento in 1995 after law school to join
Orrick, and to marry Bob Slobe, then the vice-president
and now the president of his family's business, the North Sacramento
Land Company. Despite her success and a probable future partnership
at Orrick, Ms. Mueller went solo in 1999. While the transition
surprised some, the move was logical for a public-service-minded
lawyer. While Orrick provided a cutting-edge intellectual property
practice, big-firm rates made it more difficult for Ms. Mueller
to represent individual artists and authors, or to help smaller
businesses. And when Magistrate Judge John Moulds decided
to retire to "recall status," it was little surprise
that Ms. Mueller would see an opportunity to complete the return
to public service.
Congress first created the post of "magistrate" in 1968,
expanding the role that "commissioners" had fulfilled
for 175 years in the federal courts. In 1990, Congress renamed
the post, "magistrate judges." After recommendations
of a citizens screening committee, the district judges appoint
magistrate judges for eight-year terms. Among the many tasks authorized
by federal law, district judges typically assign to magistrate
judges the job of issuing search and arrest warrants, conducting
preliminary criminal proceedings, and presiding at civil or criminal
trials if all parties consent. In Sacramento, magistrate judges
have a task that may be unique among the federal districts across
the country: in addition to the usual criminal docket, magistrate
judges hear all federal habeas petitions, including death-penalty
cases, sending their findings of fact, conclusions of law, and
recommendations to the district court for a final determination.
were not on her docket as a lawyer at Orrick or as a sole practitioner.
In addition to preparing to make life-or-death determinations
on federal habeas petitions, Judge Mueller must master the Bail
Reform Act, a statute known for its obtuse language and murky
standards for granting bail. Judge Mueller is guarded. "Getting
to the point that you feel comfortable making that call with a
real person is a very big challenge," she says. "An
additional challenge, once you gain some sense of competency,
is never becoming complacent about the decision."
customary caution, Judge Mueller is likely to rise to the challenge.
At her investiture, Judge Levi quoted from Benjamin Cardozo's
speech at a wedding in 1931: "Three great mysteries there
are in the lives of mortal beings: the mystery of birth at its
beginning; the mystery of death at its end; and greater than either,
the mystery of love. Everything that is most precious in life
is a form of love. Art is a form of love, if it be noble; labor
is a form of love, if it be worthy; thought is a form of love,
if it be inspired."
Judge Mueller, Judge Levi said, "I welcome you to this labor
of love." With her career drawn inexorably back to public
service, Judge Mueller's return to a public-service career is
almost certain to be a labor of love.