Ortega named as 2nd District Court judgeApr 29, 2021 12:15PM ● By Becky Ginos
FARMINGTON—Cristina Ortega knew she wanted to be an attorney from the time she was a little girl – now she’s a judge. Ortega was appointed by the governor to the Second District Court in March.
“I’m a first generation U.S. citizen here,” she said. “We came to Utah when I was in elementary school. I didn’t speak English and neither did my mom so she couldn’t teach me. She would sit me down in front of the TV. I watched shows like Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Reading Rainbow. That’s how I learned English.”
There was an episode of Reading Rainbow about a girl whose sister went into court, said Ortega. “I was instantly drawn to that. I was fascinated by the law and early on I knew I wanted to pursue a career in law but there was no one to guide me.”
Ortega said she did her best in school and took concurrent enrollment classes in high school. “At Weber State I met with Ned Laff, the academic advisement director. He’s the first person that I blurted out to that I wanted to go into law. I didn’t know how he was going to react. He said, ‘you’re the one holding a glass ceiling over yourself.’ He encouraged me in my passion for criminal justice.”
Judge Michelle Heward was another person who had an impact on her life. “She was my teacher in an undergrad beginner class,” said Ortega. “I instantly looked up to her. A woman practicing law – I really connected with her. Crossing paths with those two individuals helped me know I was absolutely capable of going into law.”
Ortega graduated from the University of Utah law school and became a prosecutor in special victims. “I knew there was no magic wand that could take away what happened,” she said. “But it fueled my fire to give them some type of closure in the criminal justice system knowing they’d still have to live with what happened.”
Her desire to find ways to serve in the community led her to the Davis County Attorney’s Office as a deputy county attorney working in child justice and a deputy district attorney in the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
Prior to her new appointment, Ortega had been serving as an assistant attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office since 2018.
“It’s been a huge transition (becoming a judge),” she said. “Clearly I’m no longer an advocate, I have to be neutral and listen to both sides. But as a prosecutor I had to look at things from both sides too. I was always considering all the issues to decide if we had the ability to file charges. Clearly I play a different role now.”
There’s been a big learning curve, especially with COVID, Ortega said. “When I started and reported to the building, nobody was there. It’s been different, not all being in the same building but my colleagues have been great to reach out.”
Ortega said she’s been doing court from home. “There are no in-person hearings right now, they’re all online. They’re having jury trials one at a time so they’re divided up each week. I haven’t done anything in person yet. Nothing replaces human interaction. I can’t wait to be back in court.”
As a judge, Ortega knows she’ll be faced with tough decisions. “Obviously when you make a decision you have to consider the impact it will have,” she said. “One side is going to win and one is going to lose. I want to be as transparent as possible so they know I’ve heard them.”
Ortega wants to be a mentor to other young women who want to practice law. “I always tell them never underestimate what you bring to the table,” she said. “Don’t second guess yourself. Challenges and trials gives us strength. Your experience is vital.”