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Women Of Justice Rule In SJ County

By Roger Phillips The Record, Stockton, Calif.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the WOMEN of one California community who are disrupting the legal sector and bringing justice to all.


March is designated as Women's History Month, a time to "join in commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the vital role of women in American history," according to the official website marking the recognition.

But in San Joaquin County, when it comes to law and justice, every month is women's month.

There's Linda Lofthus, presiding judge at San Joaquin County Superior Court, and Chief Probation Officer Stephanie James. And the district attorney and public defender (Tori Verber Salazar and Miriam Lyell, respectively). The head of the collaborative courts is Helen Ellis. The administrator of the court? That would be Rosa Junqueiro.

"You've got a set of dynamite women, real leaders," Ellis said.

Meet them here.

Presiding Judge Linda Lofthus Lofthus, the 66-year-old daughter of Ort Lofthus, for whom the Crosstown Freeway is named, got her encouragement from her mother.

"When I graduated from high school, my mom went back to school and got her nursing degree," Lofthus said this week. "She really impressed upon me, 'Do something you love and make your own money.'"

No one in her family was in law, but while a student at California State University, Chico, Lofthus a professor suggested a career in law. "'I think you'd be good,'" he said.

Lofthus followed that advice and has worked in the public defender's office, been in private practice and served as a judge for 16 years.

Lofthus is the county's second woman presiding judge. She's already picked the woman expected to be the third when her term ends in a year: Assistant Presiding Judge Xapuri Villapudua.

Chief Probation Officer Stephanie James "When I started with the probation department 24 years ago it was pretty much a male-dominated field," James, 48, said. "Even though I had dreams of becoming chief one day, I knew it was going to be a really hard journey for me."

In an office of 350, the odds are stacked against anyone hoping to rise to the top. But rise she did, and James currently is president of the state's probation officers association.

She has become a leader in the state and the nation known for her work moving the county toward a bail system that keeps alleged offenders behind bars not based on how much money they have but how big a threat they pose to the community.

"I think (women's) sense of empathy and our ability to facilitate change ... isn't a trait that's unique to women but I think it's something that we do really well," James said.

District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar Verber Salazar, 53, was raised by her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. It was in her upbringing that the seeds for her career path were sown.

"They were all very strong, empowered women and advocated for the importance of education and for never giving up and always believing," Verber Salazar said. "It gave you that opportunity to know that, no matter what, you had that possibility. It was up to you to find the pathway to do it."

Verber Salazar said women's experiences inform them when they consider the struggles faced by the wide array of disenfranchised groups found in the melting pot that comes in contact with San Joaquin County's justice system.

"What's important about women being in a position of leadership is they know that discriminatory practice, they know how painful and harmful it is," she said.

Court Administrator Rosa Junqueiro After 15 years on the job and 35 years with the court, the 56-year-old Junqueiro is one of the most familiar faces at the downtown Stockton courthouse.

But she still remembers what it was like 30 years ago, Junqueiro had an idea for collecting delinquent fees and fines. But she couldn't get the attention of the court's male leadership.

A year later a man suggested the same thing and the county decided to do it. "... I thought, 'Well, hello, I've been talking about it for a year,' " Junqueiro recalled.

It's better today, she said.

Collaborative Courts Director Helen Ellis As a girl and young woman, the 65-year-old Ellis wasn't worried about how her gender might affect her career opportunities.

She was on her own when she was 16, just trying to survive when she moved from Salinas to Stockton to be with friends and extended family members.

Spending her senior year at Edison High School, she earned a scholarship to University of the Pacific.

She climbed the ladder at the courthouse and 14 years ago moved to her present role, heading the portion of the court system that aims to help veterans and people with substance abuse issues, among others.

Women have more empathy than men, she said.

"You can't talk to ... a male figure like you can talk to a woman," Ellis said. "They know the issues that are going on in this county, from substance-abuse issues to women who are being trafficked. We all work together as a team."

Public Defender Miriam Lyell

The 55-year-old Lyell, who grew up in Palo Alto and attended the University of California, Berkeley, said her own generation came of age at a time when opportunities for women were beginning to expand.

But her mother traveled a much different road.

"She was really discouraged from going on to college other than to meet a man and get married. She really had to put herself through college and graduate school. She eventually got a Ph.D. and became a professor."

But the challenges didn't end once Lyell's mother was embedded in academia.

"At one point one of the department heads said (to her mother), 'Your husband has a career. What are you complaining about?' " Lyell said. "I didn't have the obstacles that she had."

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