Hon. Phyllis Hamilton credits community members as critical to successful law career
By Julie Gerke
Photo courtesy of U.S. District Courts for the Ninth Circuit
Senior Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
It’s been decades since Phyllis Hamilton lived in Jacksonville, but she quickly remembers — and credits — the teachers and opportunities that shaped the child who became a leading federal judge in California.
Hamilton, a 1970 graduate of Jacksonville High School and senior district judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, recently received the American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the Ninth Circuit. The award recognizes dedication to justice and public service.
“I thought they treated us all alike; they imparted to me a sense they were invested in our success,” Hamilton said of her teachers at Washington Elementary, then-Turner Junior High and JHS. “There was a really typical small-town closeness, a relatively close-knit community, both black and white.”
Hamilton, who now lives in Oakland, California, and her brothers, Alan (JHS ’68) and George (JHS ’69), were born in Jacksonville and were quite young when their mother moved the family to Portland, Oregon. Phyllis Hamilton was four when her mother died; after a few years of living on the West Coast with different aunts, the siblings moved back to Jacksonville and were raised by another aunt, Isabelle Beard.
Hamilton started third grade at Washington Elementary and soon was “plucked” for gifted education classes. During her junior year at JHS, she was an exchange student in Zurich, Switzerland; by that time, both brothers had graduated from JHS and joined the U.S. Army.
She started work early, at age 15, working farm fields near Diamond Grove Cemetery, then as a carhop at Top’s Big Boy, at Kline’s department store and at General Telephone. She had no idea she’d find a calling in law.
“My whole career was very serendipitous,” she said. “My memories are jumbled. I remember sitting in gym for P.E. class, with the other girls, talking about our futures. … I didn’t really know anyone with a professional degree; none of my family had gone to college.
“The only professionals I knew were teachers, and they were the best examples I had. I knew I needed to do something that would touch people.
“The school teachers in Jacksonville were the essence of what public service is all about, making a difference in persons’ lives. The most respected people in town were the school teachers,” she said. “When I grew up, we didn’t talk back to teachers; we respected them and emulated their good behavior. I always thought public service was a good thing to do.”
Her time in Zurich was partially responsible for her decision to attend Stanford University; she’d met an exchange student from California who urged her to attend the West Coast school; another friend, with relatives in Washington, D.C., had pushed Howard University.
She toyed with other careers, including veterinary medicine, but the communications major had taken some law-related classes and “decided law school was something I thought I could do.”
Hamilton graduated cum laude with a juris doctor from Santa Clara University School of Law.
Hamilton chose an initial path in criminal law, noting that not many women attorneys were hired in corporate firms. “I just found [criminal law] really interesting because of the human dynamic,” she said. “I was never motivated by money.”
She spent five years as a public defender, and then became an administrative judge with a federal agency, hearing cases from employees who had been terminated or denied benefits.
“That’s where I learned to be a judge,” she said. “I immediately felt more comfortable in that role than as an advocate.”
But her job and thousands of others’ were cut during the early years of the Reagan administration. She started hearing small claims cases at a municipal court, and was hired as its first commissioner. Five years later, she became a federal magistrate. In time, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein approached her about a U.S. District Court judgeship, and she ultimately was named to the job by President Bill Clinton.
She was the first African American named to the magistrate post in that district, and later the first African American woman promoted to chief judge of the Ninth Circuit.
Twenty-three years later, she’s taken “senior status,” a quasi-retirement label that means she has some choices in her workload. She’s no longer accepting new cases but seeing current cases to their end. Over the years, her docket was filled with criminal cases involving securities fraud, drugs, weapons and immigration issues. Civil cases included trademark or copyright infringement, environmental causes, contract and labor disputes, civil rights violations and police misconduct.
Early in her career, she was mentored by a superior court judge and has herself mentored clerks and young attorneys. “I’ve been really lucky to have been in a position over the years to give students access to federal courts, who otherwise wouldn’t have any access to be behind the doors of a federal court,” she said. “A lot of students, particularly minority students, don’t have anyone to open the front door for them. I’ve always found it to be satisfying.”
She no longer has family in Jacksonville, last visiting the city about six years ago, but remains in close contact with a friend in Springfield who keeps her updated on Morgan County goings-on.
She and her husband, Stephen Rowell, a retired attorney, have two adult children and a new grandson. The couple loves to travel, hike and cook, and Hamilton is a proud member of a 35-year book club that focuses on fiction and “good literature” that decidedly does not include court-themed books.