Armilla Staley-Ngomo: Passion for Public Service
Armilla Staley-Ngomo humbly and genuinely exudes a passion for public service, most recently as a Trial Attorney for Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., and throughout her legal career.
As a criminal defense attorney in a border district, Ms. Staley-Ngomo primarily represents indigent clients charged with immigration, alien smuggling, and drug importation offenses. Raised in Madrid, Spain, Ms. Staley-Ngomo is the daughter of an immigrant from Equatorial Guinea, a small country located in western Africa that was a former Spanish colony. Ms. Staley-Ngomo’s father is a U.S. Air Force veteran who met and married her mother while stationed in Madrid. Consequently, Ms. Staley-Ngomo is a native Spanish speaker proudly representing Latinx clients who are often undocumented immigrants and monolingual Spanish speakers.
Resolved to focus on a career that she could be passionate about, Ms. Staley-Ngomo knew joining Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. would allow her to serve clients from communities of color, many of whom have no prior experience with the criminal justice system. Ms. Staley-Ngomo leverages her breadth of legal experience and draws on inspiration from her mentor to serve her clients while also maintaining an active presence in the community.
Ms. Staley-Ngomo’s desire to join the legal profession began while attending a law-related careers program at the Advanced Technologies Academy magnet high school in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is also where her passion for public service began. Thus, she knew when applying to undergraduate and law school that she wanted to pursue a legal career focused on civil and human rights. However, her inspiration to become a Federal Public Defender occurred when a guest speaker for her Evidence class at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, spoke about his experience serving the community in this capacity. She was especially inspired by the opportunity to pursue legal research, writing, and oral advocacy on behalf of indigent clients from immigrant communities.
In order to become a Federal Public Defender, Ms. Staley-Ngomo knew she would have to show evidence of strong research, writing, and litigation skills, as well as a passion for public service. She sought out professional opportunities that would accomplish both. As a Summer Associate at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP, she participated in the Homeless Advocacy Project through the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Summer Associate in Public Service Program. This program enabled her to assist the homeless in obtaining social security benefits. As both a Summer and Litigation Associate at Morrison & Foerster LLP, she had the opportunity to develop her research and writing skills in the area of civil litigation. She also earned a Pro Bono Service Award.
After two years as a Litigation Associate at Morrison & Foerster LLP, Ms. Staley-Ngomo had the opportunity to join the Office of the Federal Public Defender in the Central District of California. As an Assistant Federal Public Defender, she provided every aspect of written and oral legal representation to indigent persons charged with and convicted of state and federal criminal offenses. While there, she worked as a trial, non-capital habeas, and capital habeas attorney.
After about a year with the Federal Public Defender, Ms. Staley-Ngomo began her clerkship with the Honorable Consuelo B. Marshall in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. She had been afforded this opportunity during law school. As the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench in the Central District of California and the first woman chief judge for the same, Judge Marshall is a jurist Ms. Staley-Ngomo seeks to emulate.
Ms. Staley-Ngomo’s three years of federal criminal and civil litigation experience prior to her clerkship made for a less steep learning curve as she navigated her assignments in chambers. In addition to gaining the unique experience of working for a United States District Judge, Ms. Staley-Ngomo was inspired by Judge Marshall’s commitment to public service. Judge Marshall prioritizes being active in the community because she understands the importance of this participation in building public confidence in the judicial system.
Following her clerkship, Ms. Staley-Ngomo joined Caldwell Leslie & Proctor, PC (now King & Spalding LLP). She represented individuals in state and federal criminal proceedings including white-collar criminal offenses, grand jury and securities investigations, domestic violence, and driving under the influence. She also had the opportunity to represent two indigent persons charged with controlled substance offenses in federal court pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act. While at Caldwell Leslie, two of Ms. Staley-Ngomo’s most notable pro bono matters involved obtaining deferral of removal for a transgender woman from Mexico pursuant to the United Nation’s Convention Against Torture, and securing $50,000 in back pay and wages for a Guatemalan garment factory worker. After two years at Caldwell Leslie, Ms. Staley-Ngomo rejoined the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Central District of California, and eventually transferred to the District of Nevada.
In 2018, Ms. Staley-Ngomo had the opportunity to join our San Diego community. Prior to joining Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc., Ms. Staley-Ngomo briefly joined Brown Law Group and then served as a Senior Appellate Court Attorney at the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One for one year.
Since joining Federal Defenders of San Diego, Inc. in January of 2020, Ms. Staley-Ngomo has mainly represented indigent clients who have been charged with drug importation, alien smuggling, and immigration-related offenses. Consequently, a majority of her clients are monolingual Spanish speakers with varied citizenship status. For many of her clients, there is an extra layer of immigration consequences that she has to consider when advising them. Additionally, this district has a large fast track program. This program affords her clients an expedited resolution of their cases in exchange for a lower sentencing recommendation by the government. This means that a significant part of Ms. Staley-Ngomo’s work includes highlighting mitigating factors unique to each client during plea negotiations and sentencing hearings. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has presented significant challenges in representing her clients, she has seen many of her clients receive lower sentences in order for the court to achieve the larger goal of limiting the capacity of inmates in custody so as to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Throughout this time, Ms. Staley-Ngomo has continued to draw inspiration from her mentor, Judge Marshall, and hopes to follow in Judge Marshall's footsteps by one day becoming a judge.
Outside of the Law
Although Ms. Staley-Ngomo achieved her goal of pursuing her passion professionally, she also seeks to follow in Judge Marshall’s footsteps by maintaining an active presence in the community. Ms. Staley-Ngomo is an active member of a few organizations so as to ensure her involvement is meaningful and genuine. She is a board member of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association and a former board member of the Latina Lawyers Bar Association. She is also a member of the San Diego County Bar Association, Lawyers Club of San Diego (Diverse Women’s Committee), the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, and the American Constitution Society. She is particularly passionate about encouraging Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to attend law school, clerk, and pursue careers in public service, as well as educating new attorneys about joining her office.
Ms. Staley-Ngomo and her partner Whigmass have a four-year-old daughter Salome. Whigmass is a refugee from Ethiopia. Ms. Staley-Ngomo is very intentional with her work and community involvement so as to be present in her relationship and in her daughter’s life. Before the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the closure of parks and beaches, she would spend time with her partner and daughter at the beach or at one of San Diego’s many attractions, including the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, Sea World, Legoland, Birch Aquarium, and various museums. She intentionally works long hours during the week so as to enable her to spend the weekends with her family. She plans vacations and begins to guard that time several months in advance. Before travel was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she would frequently travel to visit her in-laws in Chicago, Illinois, and her family in Madrid, Spain. She is determined to provide her daughter with an international upbringing.
Advice for New Attorneys
Pursue your passion! The year 2020 was a lot of things, and one huge takeaway is that you must be flexible and adapt when circumstances become constantly unpredictable if you are going to survive and thrive both personally and professionally. Ms. Staley-Ngomo’s journey exemplifies resolve to pursue her passion. Also evidenced by her journey is the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities that deepened her breadth of experience and connections. She strongly encourages new attorneys to consider federal practice. She appreciates the formality and timeliness of federal practice and recommends new attorneys take advantage of the many opportunities to get experience litigating federal cases. For example, she encourages new attorneys to seek out opportunities to join her office or the United States Attorney’s Office, or clerk for a magistrate or district judge.
* Courtney Strange is a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and its Public Relations Committee. She is an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California and externed for the Hon. Jill L. Burkhardt in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.