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Appeals Judge Recounts Humble Beginnings, Rise to Prominence

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It's probably safe to say that few federal appeals judges began their careers by selling books door to door.

But it's certainly true of Judge Jimmie Reyna, who rose to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit from modest beginnings in New Mexico and who recounted some of that history during a chat Friday at Miami Law.

Judge Reyna's visit – a rare event for a sitting Court of Appeals judge – was co-hosted by the Career Development Office and the Hispanic Law Student Association, whose president, third-year student Amy Araya, moderated the discussion. The son of Spanish Baptist missionaries, Judge Reyna spoke of his path to one of the most coveted positions in the legal profession. He said he understood while still young the power and impact that one's service can have on society, and the importance of hard work and diligence in achieving one's goals.

One summer long ago, Reyna and his wife – his college sweetheart, whom he married during his freshman year – lived and worked in Miami. Reyna recounted his experience that summer working as a book salesman to help pay his way through college and law school.

While his wife was enrolled in a psychology course at the University of Miami, Reyna would go door-to-door in Coconut Grove and other Miami neighborhoods selling books to residents. His wife would drop him off on a corner with his box of books, and he would go around knocking on doors, looking for buyers.

Reyna credits his experience selling books that way as helping him, ultimately, become a better lawyer. "I always thought that knocking on doors was going to help me," Judge Reyna explained to Araya.

After graduating from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1978, Reyna worked as an associate at a number of law firms, and at one point operated a solo practice in Albuquerque.

Eventually, he and his wife moved to Washington D.C., when Reyna worked as an associate at Stewart & Stewart. Reyna became highly specialized in the field of trade policy and international trade regulation. But despite his mastery of trade law, he always strove for more than the private sector could provide. Ultimately, his ambition drove him toward a seat on the bench.

"I knew I wanted to hear international trade cases," Reyna told his audience in the Alma Jennings Foundation Student Lounge. Having argued before the Federal Circuit, Reyna was certain about his goal of a seat on the bench. "It was a notion I had for a long time," he said.

For Judge Reyna, the notion finally became reality last year, when President Obama appointed him to the Federal Circuit. His appointment was followed by a nearly unanimous Senate confirmation.

Once on the Federal Circuit bench – a court that has special subject-matter jurisdiction over patent, custom and international trade cases – Judge Reyna's mastery of trade policy and international trade regulation helped him tremendously.

His transition to the bench was not without its adjustments, however. "Imagine a legal bohemian becoming a legal monk – it takes some getting used to," he said. Recounting his move from private practice to public service, Reyna explained some of the differences between the two sectors.

"My Blackberry used to never stop," he said of his time practicing trade law. "One of the big changes now is I don't get any texts or e-mails. Everyone wants to talk to the judge, but no one wants to hang out with a judge."

Despite the inattention his Blackberry now receives, Reyna seems to have adjusted happily to his new role as a judge. "The responsibility and prestige of the office weighs on you every day," he said. "Every day I wake up and I'm proud of what I'm doing, and I feel it. I want to hold myself up to that."