My path to the bench was unexpected. When I graduated from law school in 2011, my plan was to help underserved populations receive the funding they need by working within the government to impact policies. Unfortunately, the job market in 2011 was challenging for law graduates, so I created one full-time job by combining a part-time judicial externship with work at the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS).
My first externship was with Judge Christopher Cross, who maintained a domestic relations docket. When that ended, I accepted a clerkship for Judge William W. Hood III, who is now a Justice on the Colorado Supreme Court. He was looking for a bilingual attorney to assist with his domestic relations court. Next, I worked as a family court facilitator, which I loved because I was able to help people navigate a difficult, confusing, and sometimes dehumanizing process with as much dignity as possible. It was an experience I carry with me, and a philosophy I incorporate into my work as a judge.
After that, with the support and encouragement of my supervisor, Kristin Wood, I applied for a part-time juvenile magistrate position. Judge Don Toussaint and I were magistrates together, and when he left his county court seat to become a district judge, he strongly encouraged me to apply. In addition, I was encouraged and supported along the way by a number of retired judges and mentors, including Judge Mullins and Judge McGahey.
If you’re interested in becoming a judge, I first recommend that you speak with judges. Most of us are eager to mentor and welcome the opportunity to teach and support the next generation. If you’re wondering how to approach a judge on the topic (keeping in mind that my courts tend to be less formal because I often work with pro se participants), I suggest you wait until a break in the docket and ask to approach the bench. Explain that you’re interested in becoming a judge, ask if they have time for coffee or lunch, and tell them that you would be honored to hear their thoughts.
Second, become a member of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association (CWBA) and any affinity bar that you connect with. These are powerful and invaluable support networks. Find another organization in which you are authentically interested such as the Inns of Court or a non-profit that serves a purpose you want to support. A judicial application requires five recommendation letters, and they can’t all be from attorneys.
Third, remember that the way you behave, the way you treat people, won’t be forgotten. Always treat people with dignity. Always treat people professionally. Keep in mind that when you become a judge, you must treat people that way 24/7.
And last, prepare to repeat the process. I applied twice before I became a magistrate and three times before I became a judge, and judges I highly respect had to apply as many as eleven times. When you ask for those recommendation letters, be sure to tell your supporters to save them because you’ll likely need to request them again.
As a judge, I love that I can connect with so many people in the community, even though it’s not under the best of circumstances, and that I can help them navigate those difficult circumstances a little less painfully by demonstrating kindness in the courtroom.
If becoming a judge is a professional path that interests you, I encourage you to pursue it with determination, courage, and confidence. For the system to treat people equitably, the decision makers need to understand the people they serve.
Judge Melina Hernandez was appointed to the Arapahoe County Court in 2021, where she currently presides over civil cases. Prior to that, she served as a magistrate in the Denver Juvenile Court, as a family court facilitator and law clerk in the Denver District Court, and as a legal extern in the Douglas County District Court. Judge Hernandez is bilingual and is dedicated to expanding access to justice for all. She considers plain-language communication in the courtroom to be of utmost importance. As a Center for Legal Inclusiveness Dream Team coach, she mentors aspiring judges to improve equity, inclusion, diversity, and belonging in the legal field. She is a member of the Colorado Women’s Bar (for which she was a 2023 Judicial Excellence Award nominee), Asian Pacific Bar, and Hispanic Bar Associations, as well as the Arapahoe County Bar Association and Access to Justice Courts Committee. She is a Colorado Bar Association Leadership Training (COBALT) graduate and a Colorado Bar Foundation fellow. Judge Hernandez has been involved in several community organizations, including the St. Francis Center. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.