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Justice Maria Rivera honored for a career committed to access to justice

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Maria Rivera’s impressive resume is littered with one volunteer activity after another ― representing low-income clients or encouraging other lawyers to do so, collaborating with various access and fairness groups, working to increase diversity in the legal profession. A lengthy inventory of honors includes several distinguished service and “judge of the year” awards as well. To that list, the associate justice of the California Court of Appeal will add the 2011 Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award next month, in recognition of her unwavering support of legal services and her longtime commitment to improving access to the courts.

Maria Rivera

Rivera

Learning she’ll receive the award, Rivera said, left her “breathless. Because, you know, this is a big award and I really don’t belong in the pantheon of the recipients. The people who have received this before me have done so much more than I could ever do. I’m very humbled to be in their company.”

Those who nominated her, including Appellate Justice James R. Lambden, might say Rivera’s being too modest. “Throughout her careers as lawyer, Superior Court judge, and justice of the Court of Appeal, Maria Rivera has demonstrated relentless dedication to improving access to justice in furtherance of the goal of ‘justice for all,’” Lambden said. Added Julia R. Wilson, executive director of the Legal Aid Association of California, “Justice Rivera is completely deserving of this award based on her long-standing commitment to increasing access to justice for Californians in need and her involvement in multiple efforts to support legal services delivery around the state.”

Co-sponsored by the Judicial Council, the State Bar, the California Commission on Access to Justice and the California Judges Association, the Aranda award will be presented to Rivera by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Born in Visalia to what she describes as “a kind of churchy family” ― her father was an Episcopal priest born in Puerto Rico ― Rivera said she learned early the importance of “community and helping people.” One of her strong memories, she recalled, was cutting school on Good Friday in 1966, when labor leader Cesar Chavez led farm workers into Visalia on his famous Delano-to-Sacramento march. Although she said she was “a very callow 16-year-old” who didn’t know what the march was about, “I knew it was big and historic.”

She attended Smith College, earning a degree in Hispanic studies with distinction and working with a bilingual program that tutored local Spanish-speaking high school students. She spent a year working for the Social Security Administration in San Francisco, hired because they needed Spanish-speaking employees, when a friend’s husband suggested she apply to law school because “they were looking for minority students to apply for scholarships.” She received one of those scholarships for the University of San Francisco law school. “I wouldn’t have gone to law school without it,” Rivera says firmly. She graduated first in her class.

She worked every summer at the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation, now part of Bay Area Legal Aid, and when she finished law school was conflicted about whether to work in the legal services world. A close friend and mentor recommended she “get the best job you can get at the highest level and get trained as a really good lawyer first,” so she signed on as an associate at Morrison & Forester for four years. She later did stints at both the district attorney and U.S. Attorney offices in San Francisco before returning to private practice as a partner with McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enerson, where she remained for 15 years.

But she’d always wanted to be a judge, inspired by a law school externship with Supreme Court Justice Raymond Sullivan. So she ran for and was elected to an open seat on the Contra Costa County Superior Court, where she served until 2002, when Gov. Davis appointed her to the Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

Wherever she worked, Rivera continued her community service and legal aid efforts, never abandoning her deeply held belief, nurtured during law school, that attorneys should always work to improve access to justice. Among other things, she served on the Lawyer’s Reference Panel Committee of the Bar Association of San Francisco and volunteered at the San Francisco Lawyers’ Committee for Urban Affairs, handling cases for people who could not afford counsel but did not qualify for free legal aid. She was a member and officer of the Contra Costa County Bar Association, where she was a founding member of its Women’s Section and chaired its pro bono panel, volunteered for the Contra Costa Legal Services Foundation Ask-A-Lawyer program, and spent eight years on the board of the Contra Costa County Legal Services Program. While on the bench, she has worked to increase volunteer lawyers’ involvement in representing low- and moderate-income residents and has remained active in access and fairness issues.

Indeed, a small case she handled as a volunteer many years ago sticks in her memory as a proud moment. A car company was trying to repossess a car owned by a Hispanic couple who had purchased and financed the vehicle through the company. As she looked into the matter, Rivera, who represented the couple, thought price-fixing might be at play, so she wrote a letter to the company and quickly solved the problem.

“That is exactly the kind of case every single lawyer in the state should have on their desk once a year,” Rivera said. “If they did, we could solve the problems.”

Rivera described the crisis in legal services as “staggering,” adding that she’s shocked by the low numbers of people who help. She suggested a Do-It-Yourself movement “because people need to start helping right in our own back yards. Everyone needs to be involved. The psychological and community benefits are enormous.”