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She Judges in Paradise

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Maritime litigator Elyze Iriarte (JD 2001) reflects on the pleasures of serving on the bench in her native Guam

By Julie Riggott 

For 15 years, Judge Elyze Iriarte JD ’01 has practiced law in a tropical paradise. She left her native Guam to study at the University of Chicago and then USC Gould, but returned to build her professional career in the U.S. island territory of Micronesia. In 2016, she was appointed to the Superior Court in Guam. 

“The lifestyle is ideal if you want a family life and restful weekends,” says Iriarte, who also lived in Hawaii for three years, while still keeping up her practice in Guam. But there’s no better island, she decided, than her birthplace in the Western Pacific. “Guam is about family, culture and food. Even the busiest attorneys on the island can find balance.” 

The bar association in Guam has only 200 attorneys, and “this forces everyone to take civility seriously,” Iriarte adds. 

 

Guam may be a small jurisdiction, but the cases can be complex. When Iriarte litigated a series of vessel grounding cases in the Federated States of Micronesia, the issues reached far beyond ships hitting the reefs. 

“The cases brought into focus questions of cultural preservation, environmental economics — such as the value of fish and coral in self-sustaining societies — as well as legal procedures when a community, rather than the state, seeks damages,” she says. “I am proud that I worked on issues that have shaped this area of law in a developing country.” 

Iriarte began her legal career as a law clerk at the District Court of Guam — a position she landed during her last semester at Gould. At the time, she was also articles editor for the Southern California Review of Law & Women’s Studies. 

“Gould opened doors for me in getting work experience,” she says. “That experience shaped my initial desire to be a part of the judiciary. Gould understood my goals and exercised flexibility in helping me achieve them.” 

Iriarte quickly realized she loved being a litigator but also found success in managing firms. She stayed with her first firm, Carlsmith Ball LLP, for 15 years, focusing primarily on employment and maritime litigation. She litigated some of the region’s most important oil spill, vessel grounding and vessel arrest cases. 

“I’m also proud of cases I litigated before the Guam Supreme Court, affirming the at-will employment doctrine in Guam, improving the government procurement methods, and clarifying statutory interpretation,” she says. 

Iriate had a multi-jurisdiction practice around the Pacific. In addition to Guam, she is admitted to practice law in California, Hawaii, the Republic of Palau and the Northern Mariana Islands. 

“And now as a judge, I have found a calling,” she says. 

Seventeen years after graduating, Iriarte retains her Trojan spirit and is reaching out to like-minded Guamanians. 

She and fellow Gould alumna Dana Gutierrez ( JD 1998), who also attended USC as an undergraduate, are trying to organize a USC Guam club. “There are a dozen or so people here who have ties to USC. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully the University can help us with this endeavor!” 

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