Judge Kathryn Villa-Smith

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Kathryn Villa-Smith

Judge Villa-Smith was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she was one of six children. After she graduated from New Mexico State University, she held two jobs that influenced her decision to go to law school. The first was working with the youth in a juvenile detention center; the second was as a counselor for the League of United Latin American Citizens. She applied to law school, and was accepted at Lewis & Clark Law School. She deferred admission a year to continue raising her children and then moved to Portland from Las Cruces, New Mexico in 1979 to begin law school.

Judge Villa-Smith did not necessarily enter law school with dreams of being a trial lawyer, but her experience winning the first-year moot court competition gave her the confidence to pursue a career in the courtroom. She received additional encouragement when one of her moot court judges, Judy Snyder, encouraged Judge Villa-Smith to apply for a job that would give her litigation experience. Following this advice, Judge Villa-Smith accepted a position as a Deputy DA with the Multnomah District Attorney's Office. She worked as a prosecutor in the office for 10 years. In that time, she tried a wide variety of criminal cases, ranging from misdemeanors and DUIs to juvenile work, drug cases, and aggravated murder.

Although Judge Villa-Smith loved the work of a prosecutor, she decided to go into the private sector after a decade of criminal trial practice. At the urging of Ruth Pekelder at Gevurtz Menashe, she met with the lawyers at the firm. Impressed by their strong work ethic and passion for family law, Judge Villa-Smith joined Gevurtz Menashe in 1993. Despite her initial worries she would miss her work as a prosecutor, Judge Villa-Smith enjoyed the close client contact and broad range of issues involved in practicing family law. The wide array of problems to solve always kept the practice interesting. Judge Villa-Smith left Gevurtz Menashe in 2010, after 17 years at the firm, when she was appointed to the bench by Governor Kulongoski.

Judge Villa-Smith was the recipient of the 2010 Paul De Muniz Professionalism Award. She has dedicated many hours over her career to volunteer bar service, particularly for the MBA. She has been a member of the MBA and the Multnomah Bar Foundation boards. She chaired the MBA's Equality Committee, and served as the MBA Board's liaison to both the Judicial Screening and the Professionalism committees. She also served on the Best Practices Committee of the Diversity Section and the Sentencing Guidelines Committee of the OSB.

Asked about what she expects from attorneys appearing before her, Judge Villa-Smith noted that, after 27 years of practice, she knows how hard it is to be a good lawyer. It takes enormous work and involves constant stress. In her mind, good lawyering is a lifelong learning process. That said, Judge Villa-Smith observed how anger and adversarial tension between opposing counsel is palpable in the courtroom or the conference room. She encourages attorneys to take professionalism seriously and treat their opponents with courtesy and respect, no matter how contentious matters may be between their clients.

While Judge-Villa Smith feels privileged to have had the opportunity to practice law - and is especially grateful for the deep relationships she developed with her clients and colleagues - she is looking forward to her new role as a judge. She believes that judges provide a critical public service. As a judge, she is committed to treating the parties appearing before her with great respect. She believes that respect in the courtroom should run both ways, not just in favor of the judge. As an example, Judge Villa-Smith recalled one moment in court during a particularly difficult custody dispute. As the judge was delivering his ruling, he explicitly acknowledged the hard work that both parties did in their everyday lives, noting how the husband got up at 4 a.m. each morning to go to work and how the wife had struggled to build her own career. She remembers how the parties greatly appreciated the judge's remarks. She hopes she can show the same respect to the parties appearing before her.

Kathryn Villa-Smith was sworn in as a Multnomah County Family Court judge on January 3. The family court is fortunate to have a new judge like her on the bench, with her 17 years of learning and experience as a family law practitioner.

Originally authored by John Rothermich and printed in the April 2011 Multnomah Lawyer
Updated for the Internet in 2012