Area Graduate Now Driving Superior Court
“Mmmm … gosh,” laughs Barbara Rodriguez Mundell, presiding judge for the Maricopa County Superior Court, when asked what she enjoyed most about law school.
“I made some wonderful friends,” she conceded, including the “Ishikawa twins,”—Mark Ishikawa, who is an attorney for the city of Mesa, and Brian, also a Maricopa County Superior Court judge.
“I have to tell you,” she went on to confess, “I did not like law school.” Mundell, whose husband is Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bill Mundell, got married one week before starting her graduate work at Arizona State University. In addition to being one of a few married students, she really just wanted to spend time with her new husband, and “law school interfered with that.”
But joking aside, Mundell—who has grabbed headlines recently for her polarizing decision to establish and preside over a Spanish DUI calendar—speaks with passion about her career: “I love law and I love practicing law and I love being a judge.”
Mundell grew up in a “traditional Mexican family” in South Phoenix, attending Sierra Vista Elementary and South Mountain High School, where she played varsity tennis. She began thinking about pursuing law in high school because her grades in English were much stronger than in math or science, and because her father wouldn’t let her date: “My father, who I deeply respect and admire and love, is a real male chauvinist,” she said.
If she couldn’t date, her logic went, she wouldn’t get married; if she wouldn’t get married she’d need a career instead.
Last July, after serving15 years as a judge, Mundell became the first female and Hispanic presiding judge at Maricopa County Superior Court. She likens her position to being the “CEO of the court”—“I attend many, many, many meetings”—overseeing an annual budget of about $200 million and managing more than 4,000 employees.
Even in her short tenure as presiding judge, Mundell can check off a lot of items on her “to do” list. She’s hired a director of Community Outreach, sought improvements in hiring a more culturally diverse workforce, endorsed pay incentives for the court’s bilingual staff, sought funds for after-hours courts in Family, Juvenile, and the Justice of the Peace courts, approved hiring an Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, and established the Spanish DUI calendar.
In February, she became the first recipient of the Maricopa County Diversity Champion Award. County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who presented Mundell with the award, said she is “very determined and passionate in what she believes in and makes sure to let you know.”
She may be outspoken in some contexts, but Mundell said it makes her nervous to be recognized outside of work because it’s likely by an individual whose life she’s affected in some way, good or bad. “Actually, I kind of freeze when somebody says, ‘aren’t you a judge?’” she said. “Judges do very unpopular things.”
In her life outside of work, Mundell is a mother of two girls, Meghan, 20, a student at the University of Arizona, and Samatha, 10, who plays softball, basketball, and volleyball. Her family also includes a cockatiel and an 8-month old Yellow Labrador named Jake. She enjoys running, traveling and reading, most recently “Rain of Gold” by Victor Villasenor—“I love that book.”
Mundell is gifted, as probably many successful judges are, with a unwavering faith in the justice system and its practitioners that shows when she speaks philosophically about the law and, in the abstract, some of America’s more recent headlines, such as the politically controversial Roe v. Wade and the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court justices.
“It does sadden me to think that it’s a popularity contest for judges to be able to do their jobs,” she said. “We don’t base our decisions on political views; we take our jobs very, very seriously. We are the last vestige of authority that can protect and should protect the rights of the individual.
“People have to understand how important that is.”