Judge Marco Hernández counts his blessings from the bench

by Melanie Davis
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Judge Marco Hernández
Julie Cortez El Hispanic News Writer After being nominated by two U.S. presidents, the Honorable Marco Hernández was confirmed in February as a federal district court judge, the pinnacle of a career path he might not have embarked upon if he hadn’t hitchhiked home from a job interview for a janitorial position in the late 1970s. Born in Nogales, Arizona, but raised in the Los Angeles area, Hernández moved to Oregon after graduating high school, not because of college ambitions or job prospects, but because he had a friend living up here and didn’t feel like staying in Southern California. Once in Oregon, he nabbed a series of “little jobs that lasted for a week†before working for about a year as a dishwasher at a Beaverton nursing home. “When I was 18 years old, I didn’t know if I’d go to college. I wasn’t thinking in that way,†he recalls. “I was completely happy washing dishes and hanging out.†After quitting the dishwashing job, Hernández heard Tektronix was hiring, and travelled by bus from his home in Hillsboro to the company headquarters in Beaverton, where he discovered they were looking for janitors. A new direction He decided to hitchhike home from the interview and was picked up by Janet Freeman, an employee of the Hillsboro School District who would later tell Hernández she picked him up because he looked like he should be in school. The two started talking and Hernández told Freeman he was looking for a job; she responded that Centro Cultural in Cornelius was searching for a grant writer. Hernández pointed out that he only had a high school diploma. “They were looking for a grant writer and it wasn’t going to be me,†he says. But Freeman drove him out to meet the folks at Centro Cultural anyway, and while he didn’t get hired, he did get the night janitor job at Tektronix, which left his days free to volunteer at Centro. After a few months, Hernández was asked if he was interested in starting an after-school program at Centro Cultural. Not knowing how to begin, he thought of Freeman, only remembering at the time that her first name was Janet and  she worked at Hillsboro High School. After reconnecting, Freeman introduced Hernández to her boss, who told him the school was looking for an instructional aide for its migrant program. Hernández was quickly hired. “It actually paid less than being a janitor at Tektronix,†he recalls. But the position compensated him in other ways. He had the opportunity to head out to labor camps and work with families to ensure their children’s academic success. “I was getting paid to help people and it was really a lot of fun,†Hernández says. A year into that job he was promoted to a teacher’s aide for low-income Title I students. Soon after, Freeman left her position as a home school counselor and was replaced by Mary Anderson. When Anderson left during Hernández’s third year on the job, he was offered her position, which he considered “weird†because he still only had a high school education and both Freeman and Anderson were college-educated. “I was in way over my head,†he says, a feeling he shared when he later met with Roberta Hutton, who was then an Oregon Department of Education assistant superintendent. Hutton told Hernández he was doing fine and that the night classes he was taking at the time at Portland Community College should help him. She also said she’d send him to in-service training for further development. The next fortuitous introduction Hernández would receive came at one of those trainings, held at Western Oregon State College — now Western Oregon University. There he met Scotty Martínez, who was recruiting potential students who were interested in bilingual education, and providing them with scholarship money. Hernández quit his job and enrolled at the college in 1980, just a few years after first meeting Freeman. While still intrigued by the idea of being an educator, he quickly discovered he didn’t like his education classes. By the time he graduated with a degree in social sciences, Hernández knew he wanted to go to law school and resume working with farm laborers. After receiving his law degree at the University of Washington, Hernández returned to Hillsboro for a position at Legal Aid Services, where he remained for three years. “I was representing migrant workers who had some pretty tough situations going on,†he says. While he loved his years at Oregon Legal Services, Hernández wanted to spend more time in a court room, and after meeting someone through a case who worked for the district attorney, he was hired by DA’s office in 1989. Getting benched Hernández switched from arguing cases to hearing them when then-Governor Barbara Roberts appointed him a circuit court judge in Washington County in 1995. In 2008 President George W. Bush nominated Hernández to be a federal judge, but that Congress ended before he could get a Senate confirmation hearing. Hernández encountered much the same situation when President Barack Obama nominated him to the same post in July 2010. “They ran out of time,†Hernández recalls without a bit of bitterness about both of his first two nominations. When his nomination came up again this year, an election had just ended, a new Congress had been seated, and Hernández was finally confirmed as a federal district court judge in February. The job is still very new to Hernández — he’s hiring staff and getting settled in his new chambers — but only a few weeks after his confirmation he is learning the perks and the drawbacks of his new position. He has law clerks — three of them — for the first time in his career. He will preside over what he calls a “gorgeous†high-tech courtroom that he estimates is about twice the size of the one in Washington County. He also has a job for life; a federal judgeship is a lifetime appointment. He will never have to seek re-appointment or reelection again. “That issue is gone,†Hernández says. “It’s off the table. We’re truly independent.†But he also has to get up-to-speed with a new electronic filing system and must adjust to stricter security measures for federal judges, who are sometimes targets of violence. “There are a lot of crazy people out there,†he says, adding that he’s learning to be more guarded about his personal life. “I’m trying to adjust to that change.†Mostly, though, Hernández has the satisfaction of knowing that he’s reached the top of his career ladder, at least as far as he’s concerned. “I have no desire to do anything other than be a trial judge.†Well, anything other than be a family man who in his rare spare time enjoys reading, skiing, and fly fishing. A copy of “Art of Angling Journal†— a gift from a retired circuit court judge — graces the coffee table in his still sparsely-decorated chambers. Luck be a lady named Janet Looking back, Hernández says “it’s too hard to know†if he would have eventually ended up on a federal district court judge if Janet Freeman — with whom he still keeps in touch — hadn’t picked him up in Hillsboro that day over 30 years ago. But he does call meeting Freeman a “big break for me†— the first of many. “I just know I’m really lucky,†he says as the sun shines in through the huge windows of his spacious chambers overlooking downtown Portland. “Getting nominated by two different presidents from two different parties? That’s pretty lucky.†The verdict? It was a charmed path that led Marco Hernández to the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse. This story is adjourned. — Photo Julie Cortez, El Hispanic News Judge Marco Hernández says the delays in his confirmation to the federal bench were about timing, not a political standoff. “I don’t believe I was ever considered to be a controversial candidate.â€