Apple Case Thrusts Little Known Judge Into Spotlight
SAN FRANCISCO — The legal showdown between the FBI and Apple Inc. over an encrypted iPhone isn't the first thing to come crashing unexpectedly into the life of U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym of the Central District of California. In 2003, while Pym and her family were at home, a small twin-engine plane crashed into their Claremont residence, narrowly missing Pym, her husband, and their then-21-month-old daughter.
"If you could survive something like that, there's not a great deal that would phase you," said Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro's Kevin Green, who worked with Pym when she was in private practice.
Pym, a former plaintiffs lawyer and federal prosecutor, was appointed in 2011 to serve as a magistrate judge, a class of jurist that in the federal system serves eight-year terms, requires no Senate confirmation and generally toils out of the limelight. Apple's clash with the federal government has drawn attention to the role of magistrate judges in weighing government surveillance requests and has placed Pym at the center of a high-stakes legal fight pitting one of the world's most powerful companies against the U.S. government.
Pym, through her courtroom deputy, declined an interview request. But lawyers who worked with her before she took the bench a little less than five years ago say that she isn't likely to be influenced by all the attention the iPhone case is receiving and that she has the intellect and judgment to balance the weighty privacy and national security issues raised by the case.
"If anyone is able to digest not just sort of the letter of the law but the implications of it, she's very well equipped to do it," said Blood Hurst & O'Reardon's Timothy Blood, who worked alongside Pym at Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach.
Pym grew up in Seattle, Washington but went to college across the country in Massachusetts at Williams College, where she graduated in 1989 with a degree in philosophy. After a stint as a document clerk at a private firm back in Seattle, she received her law degree from UCLA School of Law in 1994 and moved to San Diego to work at Milberg Weiss, then a dominant force in the plaintiffs bar. She practiced at the plaintiffs firm until 2001 working on consumer fraud, wage and hour, and securities cases.
"I do think as a young associate she took a very intellectual approach to the law," said Blood, who worked with Pym on consumer class actions against large companies including Procter & Gamble Co., Hertz Corp., and AT&T Corp. Blood said that Pym's focus "was not just cases and statues but applying those in a context that makes sense." Hagens Berman's Green who also worked with Pym at Milberg Weiss said that she was "stellar" associate with an "unflappable demeanor."
"She had an ideal temperament for the bench," said Green, who sits on the magistrate judge selection panel from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, a committee similar to the one which vetted Pym for her post in the Central District.
Pym moved to California's Inland Empire after her husband, a philosophy professor at Pomona College in Claremont, finished grad school. There she joined the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California in 2002 and primarily worked out of the Riverside office handling criminal matters. She rose to be chief of the Riverside office in 2006 and prosecuted a number of multimillion dollar mortgage fraud cases before taking the bench in April 2011. With dozens of amicus briefs flowing in from technology groups and law enforcement agencies, the government's request for Apple's help in unlocking a password-protected iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters is clearly the highest profile case to hit Pym's docket. But former colleagues expect her to give each side a fair hearing. "She is not the kind of person who is going to be intimidated or influenced in any way by the media spotlight," Blood said.
Said Green, "She'll call it as she sees it"