With 20 years of experience on the bench behind her, Anna Montoya sat down recently to talk about the experiences and obstacles that led her to become the first woman elected as Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge.
Montoya, who was elected after running against an incumbent in 2000, informed the community last December of her pending retirement from the position that she has held for five consecutive terms.
At the time of her election, she said, she wasn’t content with the way things were being handled in the local courts, and felt it was her responsibility to change it.
“I was hoping that other people would run, but nobody else would run against the incumbent,” Montoya said. “I didn’t like what was going on, so I thought I better put my money where my mouth is and instead of trying to get other people to run, I decided to run.”
Prior to her time in office, she recounted, she studied at the University of Arizona, where she obtained a bachelor’s in political science and her law degree. She worked for a couple law firms in Phoenix, as well as for the Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office, before returning to Nogales to open her own law firm.
While being a female lawyer brought a few obstacles of its own, she said it helped that she had been raised in the community since age 6 and was well-connected with the local people to gain their trust. However, it was during this same time that she noticed sexism within the court system and decided to change that herself.
“I think a lot of people, for one, didn’t expect me to win,” Montoya said with a chuckle. “And the other was they didn’t want me to win.”
During her first months as judge, Montoya’s biggest challenge was proving to her staff and other court personnel that she was capable of doing the job that she was elected for, as her way of doing things was sometimes much different than that of the previous incumbent.
“It’s really easy to come in and try to make changes right away, but I think it’s also about an approach to let people get to know you first before anything happens,” she said.
Montoya was eventually able to contribute to several programs at the courthouse including We the People, a mock trial program for high school students; the Juvenile Task Force, a committee of students who made recommendations on state juvenile law reforms; and Project Safe, which aimed at reducing recidivism of drug offenders.
One of her fondest memories of her time as judge, she said, was working within the mentorship program offered for high school students interested in learning more about the courts.
Montoya explained that the mentorship program ultimately turned into part-time positions for high schoolers, in which they received a small wage for learning different processes within the court.
“The kids give you so much energy. They’re just fun, and it’s just neat seeing kids succeed in Nogales,” Montoya said. “There’s so many kids that are successful, and I wish more people could see what they’re doing.”
Now as she prepares to put down her gavel and step off the dais, Montoya said she looks forward to serving another role within the justice system.
“I don’t know that you’re ever satisfied, which is a good feeling because that’s kind of what keeps you going, is that hope to do something better,” Montoya said about her work as judge, adding: “I miss the representation of people. I miss the court and making the argument.”
She added that she hopes more people will step up to the plate to fill hers and the other public offices that are up for election at the county and city levels.
While Santa Cruz County has come a long way in terms of placing more women in positions of power, Montoya said, there is still more work to be done to have equal representation.
“Our population should be reflected in our government,” she said. “I think we have a very diverse community and they are willing to put women in those offices, but now we need more women to come to the forefront and run for those offices.”