Striving to Include Everyone in The Justice System: Serena Murillo


Alisa Balian

According to Judge Murillo, “The more that women’s perspectives are included, the more accountable [women] are going to be to the people they serve, the more integrity the system will have, and the more effective it will be for the people who use it.”

Serena Murillo pictured with her father, the man who inspired her and helped her achieve her goals. ( Alisa Balian)

The Honorable Serena Murillo’s path to the Los Angeles Superior Court has been shaped by her Latina heritage, strong role models, and a career of hard work and dedication. She is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who took her on summer visits to the California Central Valley fields where her family picked grapes, cotton, and almonds. These trips taught her that being born in America gave her more opportunities than many of her relatives had. For her grandmother, whose idea of a good job was working in an air-conditioned office, Murillo shattered her expectations by achieving a basketball scholarship to an ivy league university and eventually going on to become a Superior Court judge. 

(The following interview has been edited and condensed.)

Do you consider yourself a changemaker? 

I don’t think there are enough women or people of color on the court. I also don’t think that the law is as accessible to people as it should be. The courts need to be a place where everybody feels comfortable if we really expect it to solve people’s problems. The criminal justice system has to have integrity to represent everybody. This means everyone has to feel included in our system of justice. In that regard, I think I am a changemaker. If you want to have a really good judge, that person would be someone who is fair, treats all people with dignity and respect, works really hard, and is able to move their cases.

Are things different for young Latina women now as opposed to when you were growing up?

I was just five years old in 1975 when the Supreme Court struck down laws that kept Spanish-speaking women from voting. However, today, more people are becoming aware of the many obstacles Latinas face. There are cultural expectations where Latina’s are expected to put their own needs behind everybody else’s because that’s what good mothers or sisters do. To a certain degree, that happened to me as well. When my parents got a divorce, the first thing my grandmother told me was, ‘You’re the woman of the house, you need to take care of your dad.’ I think those kinds of expectations limit your ability to fully realize your potential in school and to move away from home. There is still a lot of implied bias where Latinas are seen more as housekeepers than rocket scientists. But I definitely think it’s improving.

What is the most significant project for women you have worked on?

I’m working on a project with some other judges to create a statewide women judges organization that is a place where women can get leadership skills because they are not really being included in most of these roles. 

It’s going to provide mentorship opportunities and education because although more women are being brought into the court, they are still being excluded from leadership decisions.

Concerning everything that we’ve discussed, are there any stories that have stuck with you?

I recall calling a case for a [man]. I heard laughing in the courtroom, and when I looked up I noticed that the person had long hair and makeup, a skirt, and heels. She looked at me, and all I could see was terror. I realized that just by being in front of that room with a black robe, I had a tremendous amount of power. And the things that I was going to say were going to dictate how this lady would be treated in the next few minutes. I looked down at my paper, and I said ‘oh my gosh I’m so sorry Ms. Valdez. Ms. Valdez, how do you plead?’ Ms. Valdez whispered the words,  ‘thank you.’ Being a judge is not about agreeing with everybody, but it is about treating all people with dignity and respect. That’s one example of something that I really like about my job. I realized that I could be a leader in small ways and hopefully make the courts more accessible so that democracy is more meaningful.