Judges Cancer Battle Inspiration for Community
Last year, Pamela Gutierrez couldn’t walk across her kitchen floor. The Justice of the Peace Judge was battling breast cancer and had undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
This year, despite ongoing treatment, Judge Gutierrez was one of 38,000 who participated Oct. 8 in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, helping to raise $1.8 million and making it possible for the Phoenix Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to make grants for breast cancer education, screening and treatment.
Though it’s been a challenging year for Gutierrez and her family, it’s also been inspirational. Recently she shared her story and spoke on breast cancer awareness at Arizona State University West. In September was elected to another four-year term on the bench, serving the South Mountain Precinct.
Gutierrez, 46, took a four-month leave of absence from the court while undergoing treatment, but even then she continued to be involved in the community. And despite having participated in benefit walks like the Race for the Cure before, Gutierrez said this year felt “a little bit different, being the victim.”
“I didn’t want to be in this club,” she said. Gutierrez didn’t want special parking or preferential treatment.
“I never asked ‘why me?’ but in the process [of recovery], if I can share my story … my purpose is to get up every day and try to help somebody.”
Although she received routine mammograms (which turned out to be misinterpreted) the cancer came as a surprise; there is no family history of the disease.
“Unfortunately, I’ve been a trailblazer of a lot of things in my family and I was a trailblazer in this, too,” she said.
Gutierrez also was a trailblazer 1992 when, while working as a paralegal, she entered and won the Miss Black Arizona pageant.
“I couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to do it at first,” she said of the pageant. “’Pam the Paralegal’ as Miss Black Arizona?” But she quickly realized that it was a platform to help open doors, and she was interested in its charitable mission, helping more students receive scholarships.
Her younger sister, Cynthia Jolliff, remembers when Gutierrez told her that she was entering the pageant, explaining that she wanted people to know who she was.
“Why do you want people to know who you are?” Jolliff asked.
“Because I want to run for Justice of the Peace,” she replied.
The transition wasn’t simply from beauty queen to judge. At the time, Gutierrez was working for the courts, on the business side. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business management, has worked for private law firms, Community Legal Services, and the Judge Advocate General’s office while serving the U.S. Air Force at Williams Air Force Base.
The Justice of the Peace courts are limited-jurisdiction, meaning they handle cases such as small claims, traffic violations, DUIs, injunctions against harassment, orders of protection and neighborhood disputes. Judges who serve in this court don’t have to hold a law degree; they are elected, rather than appointed, to office, and Gutierrez has served on the bench since 1994.
In 1999, she was appointed by then Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Zlaket to serve three years as a mentor judge of her newly appointed peers. She likens her job to being a “full-time juror”: she isn’t arguing the cases—that’s an attorney’s job—she’s deciding of the two parties, who has a stronger case.
She also is involved in her church and the Valley of the Sun Kiwanis.
Gutierrez says that her career and her extra activities are all “an effort to try to make a difference in the community.”
“I’ve always said my sister reminds me of Oprah,” Jolliff said. And despite the hardships of the past year, Jolliff said it has still been “enriching,” because her sister has demonstrated such mettle in fighting her cancer battle.
“I’ve never met anybody so determined,” Jolliff said. “When she says she’s going to do something, she does it. She’s strong in that way.”
“I’m not just saying that because she’s my sister,” Jolliff added. “I really admire her.”