Christine M. Arguello, the first Hispanic federal trial court judge in Colorado and a champion of diversity in the legal profession, has announced that she will step down as an active judge effective next year.
Arguello, 66, is a 2008 appointee of President George W. Bush. On July 15, 2022, she will take senior status — a form of retirement that allows judges to continue to handle cases while also creating a vacancy. Her decision means that the Biden administration will nominate its third judge to the U.S. District Court in Colorado, and fourth judge from Colorado overall.
"Judge Christy Arguello is a giant," Attorney General Phil Weiser said during the Denver Bar Association's 2020 "Award of Merit" ceremony. "Judge Arguello grew up without a lot of support, without a lot of role models. And from that experience she's committed to encouraging more young people who are first generation to go to college — and people of color to join our profession, which frankly desperately needs more diversity."
Arguello's resume includes a series of distinctions: the first Latina from Colorado to be admitted to Harvard Law School. The first Latina to become a partner at one of the "big four" law firms in Colorado. The first Latina to be a tenured professor at the University of Kansas School of Law. The youngest person and the first Latina elected to the board of education for Colorado Springs School District 11.
And then, the first Hispanic district court judge for Colorado.
"I do think being the first results in a responsibility and an additional burden one has to carry, especially if you are a person of color," Arguello said in 2017. "When you are the first, you are setting the standard for the next Latino/a student/judge. I also think I have a responsibility to make sure that, although I may have been the first, I will not be the last."
Mentoring aspiring lawyers
In recent years, Arguello won awards for a program she started to provide mentors to incoming college students from diverse backgrounds, called LAW SCHOOL…Yes We Can. Since its first class in 2014, it has mentored nearly 80 students, with teams of legal professionals helping young adults enter law school or otherwise attain their career goals.
"It's one of the most innovative and successful programs out there. It's really brilliant and it's entirely her brainchild," said Colorado Supreme Court Justice Melissa Hart, who is a mentor with the initiative. "You're not just a one-on-one mentor, you're a mentor team. It starts with talking about the students you're supporting, but we end up talking about what's working in our legal careers and what are the hopes and disappointments and successes we've had."
That experience, Hart added, allows her to feel supported as well.
One of the first participants in Yes We Can, Tomas Manriquez-Hernandez, met Arguello as a junior in high school. He had dreamed of being a lawyer, and considers her to be a grandmother figure in his life.
"She's always willing to extend a helping hand no matter what. But when you do accept that offer, you'd better be wiling to work at the level she does," he said.
Last year, the American Bar Association estimated that 86% of all attorneys are non-Hispanic white. By contrast, the Yes We Can program reports that 72% of its participants are Hispanic, and roughly 30% are immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Manriquez-Hernandez, 26 and now living in Aurora, is the son of Mexican immigrants who never completed primary school. His mother crossed the border six months pregnant after a cartel nearly killed his father. One of Manriquez-Hernandez's best friends, who also wanted to become a lawyer, died by suicide.
He attended Syracuse University, then graduated this year from the University of Colorado Law School. A second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, he is completing his training to become a military judge advocate.
"We always get asked if we would've graduated law school without Judge Arguello. The answer is yes," Manriquez-Hernandez said. "But she made it a whole lot easier. She gave us the tools."
Reputation for fairness
Arguello was born in Thatcher, in southeastern Colorado. At age 13, she decided she wanted to be an attorney after reading a magazine article, and she set her sights on Harvard.
"I expected the same support that others received from my classmates when they shared their dreams, but instead I was met with silence — a very awkward silence — followed by the ridiculing laughter of my classmates. 'Hahaha, Chris Martinez thinks she can go to Harvard!'" Arguello wrote in 2020.
After law school, she practiced in Miami before moving back to Colorado. From there, she joined the firm Holland & Hart. Subsequently, she was hired at the University of Kansas School of Law, then worked for former Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar.
In 2000, while Arguello was chief deputy attorney general, President Bill Clinton nominated her to a seat on the federal appeals court based in Denver, the 10th Circuit. The U.S. Senate did not confirm her, but Bush instead selected her for a seat on Colorado's seven-member trial court. She took office in October 2008.
The following year, she was reportedly under consideration by the Obama administration for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I remember her saying she was contacted by the White House and asked if she was willing to put up with what it took to go through that nominating process," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Kristen L. Mix. The nomination ultimately went to now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor of New York.
Multiple judges and lawyers who know Arguello described her as impartial and well-prepared on the bench.
"I have heard so many lawyers over the years — plaintiff’s lawyers and defense lawyers, prosecutors and public defenders alike — say, 'Our case got assigned to Judge Arguello, and we know she’ll be fair, hear our side and do a great job'. And she always does," said John Walsh, the U.S. Attorney for Colorado under the Obama administration. "That’s the highest praise a lawyer can give to a judge."
Mix added that Arguello made an effort to issue clear rulings in cases where inmates represented themselves, without any formal legal training.
"I think she's distinguished herself as a being fair arbiter of almost anything that comes before her," Mix said.
During her time on the bench, Arguello has been inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame and the Colorado Latino Hall of Fame, among receiving many other honors.
Recently, Arguello has sided with detainees who were held for years without bond at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contract facility in Aurora. In the case of one Mexican man, she ruled that his 925-day detention was "constitutionally unreasonable" and ordered a bond hearing.
In 2017, the 10th Circuit took the unusual step of reassigning a case of hers after finding Arguello twice erred in sentencing a man who pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud. Arguello at the time said that Americans "do not take white collar crime seriously enough," but the 10th Circuit found her calculation overly harsh.
"We are not suggesting that the district judge is personally biased or acted improperly," the appellate court cautioned. "We merely conclude that reassignment would best serve the interest of justice."
The vacancy is the third on Colorado's U.S. District Court during President Joe Biden's term so far. One of the White House's early nominees, Regina M. Rodriguez, has since taken her seat on the bench, and the Senate will consider in the fall the nomination of Charlotte N. Sweeney to succeed retiring U.S. District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson.
In addition, Veronica S. Rossman, Biden's nominee to a Colorado-based seat on the 10th Circuit, is awaiting a final confirmation vote in the Senate.