On a clear enough day, Kim Wardlaw can see from her office a sliver of the Rose Bowl, where 20 years ago she shared a monumental moment with her 4-year-old daughter.
On that occasion, Wardlaw and young Katie watched the U.S. women’s national team defeat China for the 1999 Women’s World Cup. At that point, Wardlaw had served for 11 months as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
In a full-circle journey, Wardlaw will be featured on Tuesday, July 9, at the inaugural Women’s Empowerment Symposium at the Rose Bowl, a day before a statue commemorating the World Cup victory will be unveiled. A grown-up Katie, who this month took her LSAT test to get into law school, will introduce her mother at the event.
“Hopefully, we will be celebrating the 2019 Women’s World Cup victory,” Wardlaw quipped, sitting in her photo-bedecked office at the Circuit Court building overlooking South Arroyo Boulevard for an interview. “We’re watching every game and rooting them on.”
In the 20 years since Wardlaw watched Brandi Chastain whip off her jersey after booting in her Cup-winning penalty kick (“That’s how the men had always celebrated,” the jurist wryly noted), the San Marino resident has continued on the path of excellence that made her a two-time appointee by President Bill Clinton. Knowing that her audience at the symposium will be young women on either side of their college freshman year, Wardlaw said she will focus on how her schooling put her where she is now.
“I think one of the main lessons I’ve learned about is the value of education, which was instilled in me first by my mother,” she said. “I think it’s important to convey the value of education and why it’s so important to put themselves in a position to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.”
Wardlaw earned her law degree from UCLA in 1979, when she also received the Order of the Coif award and was named outstanding graduate of her class; she’d previously earned her bachelor’s degree in communication studies at UCLA in 1976, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. During school, she was a legal extern for 9th Circuit Judge Joseph T. Sneed III and clerked for a year for District Court Judge William P. Gray after graduating.
In 1980, Wardlaw joined the prestigious O’Melveny & Myers law firm as an associate and made partner in 1986; the firm typically requires seven years before offering partner status, but gave Wardlaw credit for her year of clerking. When she was hired in 1980, only one woman at the firm was a partner, and when Wardlaw ascended to the position, she was only one of four women who worked in litigation for the firm. She noted that a survey of national firms in 1994 indicated that only 6% of the law partners at major practices were women.
A Democrat, Wardlaw said she knew her judicial aspirations would be limited by whoever lived in the governor’s mansion in Sacramento or in the White House. Since she’d joined O’Melveny, she watched as California went 16 years with Republican governors and also the 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as president. Then, in 1992, Clinton’s vote plurality put him in the White House, and California became the first state to elect two women — Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — as its senators.
“When that happened, which was historic, I had worked hard to be the best lawyer I could be,” Wardlaw said. “I had to have the educational background and the qualifications to even be considered when opportunity struck. I was very fortunate, but I’d also worked very hard to put myself in that position.”
Clinton — whose California campaign was run by Wardlaw’s husband, Bill — nominated Wardlaw for a District Court vacancy in California’s Central District in 1995; he again tabbed her in 1998, for the 9th Circuit vacancy. She was confirmed by the GOP-led Senate by unanimous consent — unheard of in today’s political climate — and became the first Hispanic woman appointed to a federal appeals court.
“It was relatively, to other nominees, a short period of time and seamless, due to the bipartisan support that I had,” she said.
Quite the resume for a woman who was the first in her family to graduate from college. Wardlaw, motivated by the eponymous character in television’s “Perry Mason” and the iconic Nancy Drew novels, said she had to combine student loans, scholarships and work as a research and teaching assistant in college to be able to afford her education. She found comfort among her like-minded peers as an undergrad at UCLA as well.
“I was very fortunate with the mentors I found along the way,” she said. “I was in a small department at a very large school, but they were very supportive.”
Serving in the 9th Circuit is uniquely challenging because it is both the largest geographical district — with Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands — and the most populated. The circuit has 29 judicial seats, with 28 of those filled at the moment. Judges rotate annually in groups of three for each jurisdiction and spend one week a month at their courthouses hearing appeals cases. (Wardlaw, who currently serves in her hometown, San Francisco, will rotate to the Anchorage, Alaska, courthouse next year.)
“It continues to be a large amount of work, because our caseload is the largest per judge of any court in the country,” she said, noting that around a third of the cases relate to immigration. “We’re scholarly. In a way, we’re somewhat isolated. That’s why I’ve tried to spend some time being a part of our community.”
At the 9th Circuit, Wardlaw currently chairs the Standing Committee on Public Defenders and is a member of the court’s Executive Committee. She also serves on the California State Federal Judicial Council.
Before ascending to her judgeship, Wardlaw served in various roles with the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, the Women Lawyers Public Action Grant Foundation and the Association of Business Trial Lawyers. She took leaves of absence from O’Melveny to serve on Clinton’s transition team and also the transition for Richard Riordan — an O’Melveny alumnus — after he was elected Los Angeles mayor.
In speaking at the symposium in July, Wardlaw says this is her latest way of contributing to the community she has called home.
“We have a lot of inspiring people in this community,” she said. “They’re really everywhere, if you look.”