After serving on the Los Angeles County Superior Court for nearly two years, Judge Maame Ewusi-Mensah Frimpong ’93 is seeking reelection. Judge Frimpong graduated from Vivian Webb School as Valedictorian of her class. She later graduated from Harvard University and went on to earn her law degree from Yale. After Frimpong started her legal career in a clerkship with a judge on the federal court of appeals, she worked at an international law firm, and then served in the Justice Department where she took on roles under Attorney General Eric Holder and Associate Attorney General Tony West during President Obama's administration. She has practiced in numerous areas of the law, including white-collar crime, immigration, civil rights, environmental protection, and consumer protection. But serving on the Los Angeles County Superior Court has been the highlight of Frimpong's illustrious career. She was appointed to the bench in 2015 and hopes to be reelected later this year. Below, she reflects on her campaign, career and hopes for the future.Q. What made you want to become a judge?
What may be surprising to some is that although I have wanted to be an attorney since I was a child, for most of my career, I had no interest in becoming a judge. For a long time, I thought the judge simply decided between the positions presented by the attorneys before her, and so the real power was held by those who crafted those arguments and presented them in court. I had wanted to become a lawyer to make society work better and fairer, so being an attorney seemed the best role for me. And I truly loved advocating for my clients. Over time, however, I came to see that the judge is also an advocate—for justice and the rule of law. The more I considered it, the more I felt drawn to the role. And ultimately, the opportunity to grapple with complex legal questions, make difficult decisions, demystify the justice system for the public, and protect the rights of all who come before me was too intriguing not to try.Q. Your website notes that serving in the court has been the highlight of your career. Why is that?
I have always loved the law and loved being an advocate for my client during my years as a practicing attorney. I feel that now I am an advocate for justice and the rule of law and our system of democracy, which is extremely gratifying. Serving as a judge is also extremely challenging as you are presented with new scenarios every day and the law is constantly changing. I love anything with a steep learning curve. As a judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court, my work is challenging, meaningful, and interesting, and my colleagues are smart, collegial, ethical, and committed to doing the right thing. That is my definition of a dream job!Q. What do you want to achieve during a second term?
I want to build on what I had the opportunity to do during my first term—advocate for justice and the rule of law, demystify the justice system for the general public, and ensure that every individual in my courtroom is treated with dignity and respect.
It is very important for me to always stay abreast of changes in the law, always be prepared for every hearing, and always make thoughtful, considered, and deliberate decisions. In addition, every judge is responsible for the “tone” set in her courtroom. For me, I hope to continue to set a tone that is warm, but recognizes the importance and formality of the proceedings, and, above all, ensures that every individual—every juror, every witness, every defendant, every attorney—is treated with dignity and respect. Even if someone is accused of or convicted of a crime, he is still entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.
Finally, one of the best parts of my job is helping the general public understand the justice system. I get to do this with prospective jurors, but I also take every opportunity outside of my courtroom to do this, especially with young people. For example, I am one of three judges handling the Teen Court program at a local high school where minors charged for the first time with relatively low-level offenses get a “trial” by a jury of their peers—other high school students. The program is a great way to introduce the accused minor as well as the jurors and other participants at the high school to the principles of our justice system that we are so proud of. I am excited to continue the Teen Court program and other community outreach initiatives.Q. Are you focusing on anything specific in your campaign?
Yes. For me, the campaign has given me an opportunity and a platform to discuss why it is important to have judges that are competent, fair, and compassionate. It is my sincere hope that everyone I speak with as I campaign walks away with greater confidence in our justice system and a greater understanding of the role that judges play in making our Constitutional rights a reality.
Most of us understand that we have certain rights based upon our Constitution, and many of us understand that the Supreme Court plays a role in interpreting those rights, but I think few people understand that it is ordinary judges like me who protect those rights every time you are in a courtroom. For example, the Supreme Court has determined that our Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police. It is judges like me, however, that determine, in any given case, if the police action was unreasonable, according to the law.Q. You have worked in a variety of roles during your legal career. Is there one in particular that prepared you for this role the most? Or is there an important lesson you learned during one of those jobs?
I really draw on skills developed in all of my roles nearly every day. But if there is one lesson that I learned from my earliest days as a judicial law clerk until my most recent role as a general counsel, it was to never compromise on doing justice and getting the answer right. In my years at the Justice Department under President Obama and Attorney General Holder, this was emphasized in everything that we did. I was often inspired by a quote over the door to the Attorney General’s Office in the Department of Justice in Washington, DC: the United States wins its case whenever justice is done one of its citizens in the courts. The emphasis was on doing justice, not winning cases. And this has translated seamlessly for me to my role as a judge: My North Star should always be doing justice, not ensuring that a particular side wins.Q. Do you think Webb had any impact on your values, work ethic or career path?
Absolutely! All three! Webb certainly cultivated in me a drive for excellence, and at Webb I learned that to do well, I needed to work very hard. Ultimately, I believe my work ethic came from my parents, but it was further developed at Webb. And, although I am not sure I realized it at the time, the Honor Code system greatly impacted me. I probably already came into Webb as a young person who valued honesty and integrity, but at Webb, I was placed in a community of young people who were also striving to make the principles of honesty and integrity reality on a day-to-day basis. As a lawyer, and now as a judge, my integrity is sacrosanct. I never want to compromise it. And Webb certainly influenced my career path—those hours spent poring over the Federalist Papers and the other great documents of our history impressed upon me the beauty and brilliance of our legal system, and made me excited to be a part of it.Q. Is there anything you think differentiates the Vivian Webb School alumni network from other alumni networks?
There is something special about a girls school, even a girls school within a coordinate environment such as Webb. In my most formative years, I was taught that there was nothing second-class about a women-only environment; to the contrary, there was much to be celebrated. I work in a male-dominated field, and have worked in male-dominated environments for much of my career. I distinctly recall numerous meetings, negotiations, or court proceedings where I was the only female lawyer; now I am one of a minority of female judges. This has been challenging at times, but I never let anyone make me feel as though I did not belong. And the ladies I met at Webb continue to inspire me because they are phenomenal women who support other phenomenal women.Q. What would you want alumni who haven't met you to know about you?
That what motivates me now, and what has motivated me throughout my career is the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. My career has been the product of hard work, wonderful relationships, and serendipity. I feel so blessed that my parents, through their hard work and sacrifices, were able to give me such a great start at Webb, which has led me to where I am today.Learn more about Frimpong’s campaign for reelection on her website.