A black robe for an armor

Posted on Mar 26 2019

“I encourage a young girl who wants to be a lawyer to not let anyone dissuade her because she is a girl,” said Chief Judge Ramona Villagomez Manglona of the U.S. District Court of the Northern Mariana Islands in Garapan. (Bea Cabrera)

“Little black dresses” have always been staple in every woman’s wardrobe. But for female judges, wearing the black robe is the rule—not a fashion statement but a clear demonstration of a commitment to uphold the Constitution, rule of law, and justice for all.

U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona Villagomez Manglona has been in and out of this robe for many years since she started her career in the judiciary—in 2003 as an associate judge of the CNMI Superior Court and currently as the first female chief judge of the local district court.

She recounts that it was former governor Juan Babauta who appointed her to the Superior Court where she served for eight years. She was then offered the opportunity to serve as district court judge and snagged the nomination of former U.S. president Barrack Obama. She was then confirmed to serve as district judge for a 10-year term.

“I am on my eighth year now. …Renewal is possible as my predecessor, senior judge Alex Robert Munson, was able to obtain nomination from former president [Ronald] Reagan and subsequently former president Clinton, making him serve in the position for 20 years,” she added.

Manglona’s legal journey is not without side trips. Most college graduates immediately go to law school but Manglona first got married, had two children, and then went to University of California at Berkeley where she obtained her juris doctor.

“I made my husband, John A. Manglona—currently an associate justice of the NMI Supreme Court—who was a lawyer at that time understand that if I was going to marry him, he also needs to understand that I intend to get my law degree. …It was a deal-breaker if he wouldn’t help me in that path [but] he gave me assurance not to worry and he did follow through as he was raised by a family that believes education is important,” she said.

The Manglona couple have two children: son Dencio, who works with the CNMI Public School System, and daughter Savana, who is currently in law school at the University of California in Davis and is graduating in May.

According to Manglona, her interest in law started when she was in middle school.

“I recall telling my mother that I wanted to become a lawyer and, interestingly enough, she told me, ‘Well, if you are going to be an attorney, you will probably become a politician. Then you will deal with all these other issues so I don’t think you should become a lawyer.’ I was kind of surprised because she wasn’t a politician herself so I thought then that, instead of law, I’ll pursue business,” she said.

“[But]…my interest in law did not die. The influence came from the very thought of being the one to help people make a difference and help people. …To me it was service… I wanted to use my career in law as a form of public service,” she added.

Public service was indeed the backbone of her career. Manglona started her legal career in the CNMI as a law clerk at the CNMI Superior Court, then switched over to the CNMI Attorney General’s Office Criminal Division and, after several years, moved over to the Civil Division. She subsequently became the deputy attorney general and then the first female attorney general of the CNMI. She was appointed to the Superior Court and moved to her current post at the district court.

“My husband and I attended the Liberation Day activities years ago and, at the parking lot, I saw a court staff with his young son. The court staff greeted me by saying ‘Hi, judge!’ and the young boy said in disbelief, ‘She’s a judge?’ I chuckled because I was the only woman out of five judges in the Superior Court that time,” Manglona said.

“It is fact that the Judiciary is a male-dominated field in many jurisdictions, including our own. …As a judge for eight years in the Superior Court, I really felt the sentiment that if I was going to do something, better make sure that it is right. …In the context of my current job at the district court, I’m very pleased to work with fellow female magistrate judge Heather Kennedy. It is actually comfortable and easy and I have a wonderful staff of professionals,” she added.

The women that Manglona looks up to are Sandra Day O’Conner, a retired associate judge of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a current associate judge of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Justice O’ Connor was the first Supreme Court justice appointed by President Reagan. Talk about breaking through the glass ceiling. O’Connor got one out of the nine seats,” she said.

“It took awhile before Justice Ginsberg got on the bench after being appointed by President Clinton in 1993 and now we are very lucky that we have three women in the bench. The fact that more and more women are able to practice law also allows women to be leaders and decision makers,” she added.

In performing her duties and making decisions, Manglona knows that there is only so much that a judge can do.

“In the context of the decision-making process, one of the things I learned early when I was a prosecutor is you can only do the truth seeking process to a point because we gather information to know the truth and then render a decision. …That decision can be criticized or it may go up on appeal…but I realized that there is only so much that you can do [and] that is why you always do your best,” she said.

“As a judge, my professional challenge every day is sentencing in criminal cases. The court has the mighty power to be the one to decide whether a person is going to have liberty or not. …That’s always the difficult part because there is so much discretion given to us. …We are trying to formulate a sentence…that is fair, reasonable, and not more than necessary,” she added.

Being a woman of many firsts in the CNMI means that Manglona is paving the way for more women.

“We have a lot of talented women in the community that could possible serve in the same capacity…. Look at what’s happening in Guam. They have a woman governor, woman chief justice, chief district judge. …Communities are…acknowledging that women are effective not just in the household,” she said.

“I encourage a young girl who wants to be a lawyer to not let anyone dissuade her because she is a girl…Pursuing law is an area that requires talent. You need to be able to have tolerance being able to sit down and read a lot. I’d also encourage her to continuously grow by reading because it is a different way of experiencing different things,” she added.

While Manglona celebrates women empowerment, she also highlights the important role of men in women’s lives.

“I believe that a lot of the successes of women is really from the support of men and I think it’s a wonderful aspect that it is a shared value because I don’t think we can ever survive without men. I am truly blessed to have a very strong and supportive husband that makes the journey a shared endeavor,” she said.

“I am also very grateful and blessed to have a big family where everyone is very supportive. …Having them help me with my children when I was away was so immeasurable… That’s the power of the families here on the island—there is always someone who is always willing to help out, whether in a small or big way and that always means a lot,” she added.

Bea Cabrera | Correspondent
Bea Cabrera, who holds a law degree, also has a bachelor's degree in mass communications. She has been exposed to multiple aspects of mass media, doing sales, marketing, copywriting, and photography.
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