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Siblings Help Each Other to Court Success

“Good after-noon, judge,” I said when Gregory Munoz arrived to meet me for lunch Wednesday at a Coco’s near John Wayne Airport.

“Just call me Greg,” answered the newly appointed Orange County Superior Court jurist. “I’m not used to this yet.”

Early next month, the veteran civil attorney and mediator expects to formally don his judicial robes, joining a handful of other Latino judges in this county. Quite a distinction for the son of an immigrant coal miner, the eighth of 11 children, a kid who shined shoes and delivered newspapers to help his family with expenses.

Soon we were joined at our booth by Greg’s sister, Frances Munoz. She’s No. 5 in the sibling lineup but the first in her family to get a high school degree.

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“Good afternoon, judge,” I said again.

Frances smiled regally and raised no objection to the title.

Her Honor is already used to it. This month, Judge Frances Munoz, 69, celebrates her 32nd anniversary presiding over cases at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach. And now her little brother, at 62, is following in her footsteps.

It’s a fitting culmination to tandem legal careers that intertwined from the start, ever since Frances encouraged her brother to study law. It’s also a poetic denouement to the lives of two siblings who stayed close during good times and bad, climbing the ladder of immigrant success together.

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Greg and Frances Munoz are not the only pair of judicial siblings in Orange County. They join Judge Wendy Lindley in Laguna Niguel and her brother, Judge Gerald Johnston, who presides in Fullerton.

The Munozes are not even the first Latinos to ascend to the bench from the same brood. Outside Orange County, there are at least 12 more pairs of siblings, including two sets of Spanish-surnamed brothers, among the 1,600 members of the state judiciary, said Constance Dove, director of the California Judges Assn. However, the Munozes appear to be the only brother and sister of Mexican-American heritage serving on the state bench.

It’s no surprise that professions would run in families. Siblings are apt to share their experiences and their occupational contacts.

“It’s a role-model thing,” Dove said.

It certainly was in the case of Frances and Greg Munoz. Their parents hail from humble rural roots in the Mexican state of Jalisco. They immigrated in 1921 with little schooling, ill-equipped to help their U.S.-born children with homework, much less college ambitions.

Balancing School, Work

It was left to Frances to convince her old-fashioned father that her siblings should study instead of work to help the family. The late Fernando Munoz had busted broncos back home; he could be strong-willed and stoic.

“He thought we needed to learn to work to survive well. And he did teach us to work,” explained Frances, an admitted workaholic.

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Greg said his sister has always been quietly competitive, even when it came to picking tomatoes and grapes as children. During summers, the family would head for Fresno to work in the fields, often sleeping outdoors under the trees. Frances had to prove she was the best picker of the bunch.

She was born in 1930 in Miami, Ariz. Greg came along seven years and two siblings later. He was born in Colorado, where the elder Munoz spent most of his 20 years as a miner.

When the mine dried up and the town of Puritan died with it, the family moved to Corona, in Riverside County. It was 1941, the year the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Greg was 4, Frances 11.

The Munoz children were forced to attend segregated schools for Mexicans, a shock, coming--as they did--from states where that was not the case. Yet Frances credits a few good teachers with inspiring her to study. In turn, as older sister, she would reward the younger ones for getting good grades. She’d buy them trinkets or offer a free soda at the pharmacy where she worked.

One day, she took Greg to open his first savings account. The boy learned to faithfully deposit his shoeshine tips, turning over fistfuls of coins that often didn’t add up to a dollar.

Greg couldn’t understand why the tellers always chuckled. By the time he was in high school, he had socked away 100 bucks. To this day, he has saved that first passbook with the record of his nickel-and-dime deposits.

The worn bankbook also serves to document his sister’s long-lived influence. Ironically, Frances went to work after high school so her younger siblings could go straight through college. She sent money home to help the others stay in school.

Frances Follows Suit

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Frances did not earn her own degrees until the others were finished. She was 40 when she graduated from Los Angeles’ Southwestern University School of Law in 1971.

For a time, Frances took some junior-college courses at night while managing a furniture store in Los Angeles. Greg moved into his sister’s Echo Park rooming house while he studied full time at UCLA. At some point, Frances started telling her brother that he’d make a great lawyer.

“She put the bug in my ear and kept it there until I finished law school,” said Greg, who got his juris doctor degree from USC in 1963.

After a stint as a prosecutor in L.A., Greg went into private practice in Orange County. Since 1969, he’s had his office in Santa Ana, with only two secretaries during the last three decades.

In 1972, Frances followed Greg to Orange County, with a J.D. after her own name finally.

“Agustin, I want you to know I was in this county first,” joked Greg, leaning over the table to point at his sister. “Then she comes out here, this carpetbagger, and starts working in the public defender’s office.”

The first Hispanic and only the second female employed in that office, to be exact.

In those days, people would ask: Are you Greg Munoz’s sister?

Now they say: I didn’t know Frances had a brother.

“I mean, that’s the final straw!” said Greg with mock rivalry.

Beneath the teasing, Greg harbors a deep respect for his sister.

“She never married, but she probably has raised as many kids as I have. Seriously,” said Greg, a father of five grown children who lives with his second wife, Evelyn, in Newport Beach.

While attending UC Irvine, a few nephews and nieces have stayed with Frances at her Corona del Mar home. Currently, she has taken in a grandnephew, 15, who attends Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.

Practicing Compassion

But Frances has also been known to take in strangers--like the client with a proclivity for knives to whom she opened her doors as a young public defender.

Frances had argued that the young Latino defendant was mentally deficient and didn’t deserve a state prison term. He’s “a very neat kid,” she had told the judge.

“If you think he’s such a nice guy, why don’t you take him home?” asked the judge.

That night, she picked up the prisoner from jail and took him home. She made sure, however, to hide her kitchen knives before bedtime. The next day, the judge asked to see her.

“Munoz, I don’t care what you do, you get that defendant out of your house now,” said the rattled judge. “I couldn’t sleep thinking about you.”

But the young man knew he’d get into trouble again if he returned to his barrio. So Frances defied orders and allowed him to stay a few more days. Eventually, she convinced the court to put the youth in treatment rather than behind bars.

Frances has a big heart, said Greg. She tutors once a week at a Santa Ana grammar school, and she recently paid $10,000 to have electricity extended to the poor ranch where her mother was born, near San Miguel de Los Altos.

The Munoz matriarch, Benigna, turns 95 next month and still lives in Corona, where she supervises the production of hundreds of tamales every Christmas. The children still see her as the family’s strong center.

Are Greg and Frances ever surprised they came so far?

“Well, we think it’s normal,” said Greg.

“We always wondered why everybody else didn’t do it,” added Frances, “didn’t grasp the opportunities that were there.”

Agustin Gurza’s column appears Tuesday and Saturday. Readers can reach Gurza at (714) 966-7712 or agustin.gurza@latimes.com.


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