Friends and former colleagues of U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras described the former prosecutor as a quiet man, but at yesterday's swearing in ceremony at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, he was anything but.
Contreras drew big laughs from the standing-room only crowd as he described how his father-in-law, upon learning Contreras would be a judge, remarked that his new position would look nice in his obituary. He paid tribute to his mother, who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s from a life of poverty in Cuba.
"It's the American dream," he said. "She knew that with hard work and education in this country, anything is possible."
Contreras fills now-retired U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina's seat. Urbina was the first Hispanic judge on the D.C. federal court and, in his remarks yesterday, said it was significant that Contreras would become the second.
"To pursue happiness, you have to have hope, and hope implies faith," Urbina said, referencing the Declaration of Independence's promise of the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." When Latinos see someone like Contreras on the bench, he said, "they have faith and they have hope, and that's what makes this country great."
From 2006 until his appointment, Contreras was chief of the civil division in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. He's the third person to hold that job before being appointed to the D.C. court, joining Chief Judge Royce Lamberth and Judge John Bates.
Contreras began his career at Jones Day after earning his J.D. in 1991. Gregory Shumaker, partner-in-charge of Jones Day's Washington office, spoke yesterday about first meeting Contreras when Shumaker was running the firm's summer associate program. He said Contreras had a gift for connecting with people, a skill that would serve him well on the bench.
In 1994, Contreras was hired by Eric Holder Jr., then the U.S. attorney for D.C., to join that office. Mark Nagle, vice president and general counsel for Marriott Vacations Worldwide Corp. and Contreras' predecessor as civil division chief, spoke about Contreras' many victories, including his time leading the city's Medicaid fraud unit. "He strove every day to do the right thing," Nagle said. Channing Phillips, counselor to the attorney general and the former principle assistant U.S. attorney in D.C., said Contreras "has a tireless work ethic and led by example."
In 2003, Contreras left Washington to lead the civil division in the U.S. attorney's office in Delaware. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius partner Colm Connolly, the former U.S. attorney for Delaware, said that besides Contreras' legal acumen – he secured what is still the largest settlement in Delaware for environmental violations – he was loyal and a superb listener.
"Every litigant in his courtroom…will receive Rudy's full attention and a fair hearing," Connolly said.
National Law Journal photos by Diego M. Radzinschi. Above, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras is sworn in to the bench.
Retired U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina, left, with Contreras.
Contreras puts on his robe with help from his mother, Amparo Contreras.
Contreras takes his seat with the other judges as U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler looks on.