SAN DIEGO — Justice Patricia Benke is sitting at her desk, below a smiling, autographed picture of Gov. George Deukmejian, insisting that she is not washed up. It is odd that she feels compelled to do so.
Benke is, after all, something of a Wunderkind. Ever since Deukmejian named her to the Municipal Court bench in mid-1983, Benke has powered through the judicial ranks at a dazzling pace. Today, at age 39, she is the youngest member and only woman on the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego.
But last month, Deukmejian bypassed Benke for a seat on the California Supreme Court. The aftermath for her has been downright bewildering.
The trouble started when Justice Marcus Kaufman remarked that Benke--widely viewed as the favorite among four candidates for the prestigious post--may well have lost the job because she refused to uproot her family and move to San Francisco, where the court is based.
Benke, who said she wanted to be "completely honest" with the governor's appointments staff, also told them she would have trouble spending more than three days a week away from home.
Benke conceded that managing the workload of a state Supreme Court justice while spending just three days a week in the office would have been difficult. But she said she would have "given it my darndest" and would have "patterned myself after the men up there," two of whom spend shortened workweeks in San Francisco because of long commutes.
The governor's office will not confirm whether Benke's unwillingness to relocate was, in fact, the deciding strike against her, and the justice says it's all a mystery to her. Nonetheless, the possibility that it played a pivotal role has created quite a stir.
Indeed, Kaufman's observation provoked a rousing debate: Had Benke been relegated to the "Mommy Track"?
"After Justice Kaufman made that comment, people from all over started sending me articles on this 'mommy track' thing," Benke said in a recent interview. "I had no idea the sensitive chord that was struck out there. It just exploded."
The "mommy track" concept was outlined in January in the Harvard Business Review by veteran feminist Felice Schwartz, who suggested that some working mothers might be willing to sacrifice a degree or career advancement and compensation in exchange for flexible hours. The proposition has since been subject to a bitter assault by those who contend that such a track would institutionalize unequal treatment of women in the workplace.
After Kaufman's remark, Benke was deluged with requests for interviews, as well as invitations to appear on television talk shows around California. A few colleagues, believing that Benke indeed had been mommy-tracked, grumbled that it was unfair. Women lawyer groups throughout the state also took an interest.
The hubbub over Benke all but stole the spotlight from the true woman of the hour--Court of Appeal Justice Joyce Kennard in Los Angeles, Deukmejian's choice to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice John A. Arguelles.
Benke, meanwhile, was beginning to feel uncomfortable.
Initially, she said that if her desire to commute to the high court job had tipped the scales against her, then that in itself was "an absolutely legitimate" reason. Although Benke stands by that statement today, she said she might have "given off the wrong signal"--or led people to believe that she has in fact been mommy-tracked and that it's just dandy with her.
"I woke up and said, 'Wait a minute. What's going on out there in the world? Am I pushing myself into a position of saying, 'Well, I'm just going to raise my children now and go to plays and bake blueberry muffins?'
"That's not where I see myself at all," Benke said emphatically. "I'm 39 years old. I plan on being around for a long time."
Committed to Husband
Benke calls herself "a fairly traditional mom" and said she is unswervingly committed to her husband, Don, and two young sons. But all of the "mommy track" talk made her uneasy--worried that "people might think I was removing myself from consideration for something else."
"The way this was being portrayed, I was afraid there was this perception I had cut off my career," she said. "I can roll with the punches, but I'm certainly not ready to sit back and retire."
As the news spread, speculation became contagious. Court watchers and feminists--who had tabbed Benke as the favorite because she was the only contender who was on the governor's list when he last made appointments to the court in 1987--began offering their own, often conflicting opinions.
Some say the governor may have been justifiably leery of appointing another justice whose home base was outside the Bay Area.
Arguelles, who stepped down after just two years on the court, says the burden of commuting and being separated from his family in Orange County was substantial.