From Foster Care to the Bench: Judge Maria Lucy Armendariz Dared to Defy the Odds Judge Maria Lucy Armendariz

Judge Maria Lucy Armendariz

Lucy Armendariz was 8 years old when she first appeared before a judge.

Her mother, a high-level drug trafficker in Boyle Heights, received a life sentence, leaving Lucy’s fragile future uncertain. Amidst a sea of adults, she wondered if the judge knew she was there because he never looked at her. Then the judge, fumbling with the pronunciation ‘Ar-mend-da-riz’, announced the decision that upended her life: Lucy Armendariz would enter foster care.

“I don’t think I knew what dignity was, but I remember feeling ashamed,” Armendariz recalls. “That it was about me, that I was sorry for having to be there and taking up people’s time.”

Armendariz has come a long way since that day in court. Now a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, Judge Maria Lucy Armendariz ensures every person in her courtroom feels seen and heard as a human being — a promise born from her childhood experience.

Education spurs stability

Armendariz was born at Adventist Health White Memorial and raised in Boyle Heights. As a teen attending Roosevelt High School in the 1980s, she saw girls in her group home become mothers too soon and boys lost to the streets or juvenile hall.

Heeding those warning examples, she viewed college as a pathway to stability. “I had no parents to fall back on, no safety net, and nobody was going to save me,” Armendariz asserted. “I knew that I had to go to college.”

With the help of guidance counselors, Armendariz was accepted into UCLA in 1988, and for the first time in her life, she knew where she would live for the next four years. She didn’t know what she wanted to study, but she knew she would get three meals a day.

Once on campus, Armendariz was immediately struck by how different UCLA was compared to Boyle Heights. Located in Westwood, privilege and prosperity were the norms.

“It was the first time I saw income inequality with my own eyes,” Armendariz said. “My roommates were children of movie producers and surgeons… I saw what wealth and power was and what access to wealth meant.”

Against the backdrop of stark income disparities, her passion for law came alive. She wondered how the legacies of racism in the legal system had affected her and her community and how to dismantle them. That’s when she decided to go to law school.

Armendariz attended UC Law San Francisco (formerly UC Hastings College of Law). She received financial aid and academic support from David Lizárraga and the TELACU Foundation to offset her tuition and loan costs, something she is still grateful for today.

Giving back to her community

After a short stint working in a San Francisco law firm, she longed to do work that would create real change in the community she grew up in.

“I wanted to help my community,” Armendariz said. “Something where I was using my Spanish speaking abilities or my ability to advocate. That led me to go to Sacramento to do public policy work in 1997.”

In Sacramento, she earned a reputation as diligent, honest and trustworthy, which paved the way for her appointment by the Senate Rules Committee as a judge for the State Bar Court in San Francisco in 2007. She served in this role until her election to the Superior Court of Los Angeles County in 2018. Most recently, her commitment to justice was reaffirmed when she was re-elected to a new six-year term on March 5, 2024.

Armendariz also contributes her expertise as a Member of The Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts responsible for ensuring the consistent, independent, impartial and accessible administration of justice. Recognizing her leadership, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed her Chair of the California Judicial Mentorship Program, a Judicial Council initiative to foster diversity on the bench.

Beyond her official duties, she volunteers as a commissioner to the Supreme Court Blue Ribbon Commission on Foster Care and as a Board Member of Leadership California, an organization dedicated to advancing the leadership role of women and girls. Her efforts also extend to mentoring initiatives that connect resources to East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and Montebello.

“I visit a lot of kids in foster care, and I tell them we’re all dealt a deck of cards at birth,” Armendariz said. “Life is fair, and it is unfair. What matters is how you play that deck of cards. With persistence, hard work, and a lot of luck, it doesn’t matter what life throws at you. What you choose to do with those cards is how you get away from the mentality that I can’t do something because X happened to me. Everybody has a horrible story. But It’s how you decide to use it and not become a victim of that story.”

Admittedly, for years, Armendariz kept silent about her mother’s life sentence and her upbringing in foster care. But in time, she realized her story was a triumph to be proud of and could inspire others with similar backgrounds to pursue legal careers.

“I would love to see the people who make the decisions reflect more of what the community looks like,” Armendariz stated when asked about the future. “My taking the bench is an act of revolution. That bench was not built for people who look like me, for me to wear my hair curly, with red lipstick and hoops. But this is what a Latina looks like, and I deserve to be on this bench.”

Be the catalyst for change that stories like Armendariz’s represent. Your gift empowers young people in East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and Montebello to achieve their career aspirations through programs like the Healthcare Workforce Development Program. Join us and invest in the leaders of tomorrow—donate today.

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