Local Obituaries

Sacramento County’s first female deputy district attorney mentored lawyers

Virginia S. Mueller, seen in this 2006 photo, began her career in the male-dominated law field in 1946. She died March 14 at age 91.
Virginia S. Mueller, seen in this 2006 photo, began her career in the male-dominated law field in 1946. She died March 14 at age 91. Sacramento Bee file

Virginia S. Mueller began practicing law in 1946, when female members of the bar were rare, but during 63 years as a prosecutor and defense attorney, she never let gender or any other obstacle deter her from whatever she set her mind to achieve.

As a teacher and mentor to generations of younger women entering the field, her advice was always, “Go for it!” said Charity Kenyon, a Sacramento attorney, recalling her longtime friend.

Sacramento County’s first female deputy district attorney and a co-founder of the Women Lawyers of Sacramento, Mueller died in Sacramento on March 14 of pneumonia, said her son Christian Mueller. She was 91.

Mueller spent many years in private practice, working independently from an office in Old Sacramento. She was drawn to the legal profession because, her son said, “She really had a very strong desire that disputes should be resolved without violence, whether in families or between strangers. … Law was first and foremost the route to this.”

Mueller was born April 27, 1924, in Palo Alto, where her father, William Leonard Schwartz, was a professor of romance languages at Stanford University. Her mother, Anstrice Churchill Bryant Schwartz, didn’t work outside the home, but she also had an interest in foreign languages and worked to maintain fluency in Italian, German and French.

Both parents had grown up abroad. Mueller’s father, the son of Methodist missionaries, was reared in Japan. Her mother was born on the island of Formosa, now Taiwan, where her father, Mueller’s grandfather, worked for the Chinese Customs Service.

Mueller earned a degree from Cornell Law School in 1946. She met her future husband, Paul Mueller, at Stanford. When World War II ended, he was sent, as an Army lieutenant, to Japan for a year as a member of the United States occupation forces.

“My mother pinned his bars on him, and then they got married,” Christian Mueller said.

When her husband’s tour of duty ended, the couple returned to Stanford while Paul Mueller completed his studies and Virginia took a job as a research attorney for the Court of Appeal in San Francisco. In 1949, they moved to Paris, where their son was born and Virginia earned her doctorate at the University of Paris.

After working as a deputy prosecutor for King County in Washington state, she was hired as Sacramento County’s first female deputy district attorney and served in that post from 1959 to 1966. Then she switched sides, her son said, noting that she went to work for the recently formed Legal Aid Society, serving as a defense attorney.

She really had a very strong desire that disputes should be resolved without violence, whether in families or between strangers. … Law was first and foremost the route to this.

Christian Mueller, son of the late Virginia Mueller, who was the county’s first female deputy district attorney

During that time, she and her husband were raising two children. In a 2006 interview with The Sacramento Bee, Mueller said that early in her career, she noticed she was in the minority among women lawyers in deciding to have a family.

“To be a wife and mother as well as a lawyer was a complicated life, so the choice was often not to marry or, if they were married, not to have children,” Mueller said.

Christian Mueller said his father always strongly supported his mother in her career. Paul Mueller had a doctorate in psychology and worked for the state of California, primarily for the Department of Rehabilitation, his son said. In their relationship, Christian Mueller said, his parents achieved “almost the impossible work-life balance.”

Paul Mueller died in 2005.

Virginia Mueller was active in numerous local, national and international organizations. She served eight years on the Sacramento-Yolo Port District Commission, as its first woman commissioner, from 1983 to 1991.

She was active in the National Association of Women Lawyers, serving as president and receiving the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. An advocate for the rights of women and children, and the cause of peace, she belonged to the United Nations Association, League of Women Voters, World Peace Through Law Center, the American Association of University Women, American Women for International Understanding, World Affairs Council of Sacramento, Soroptimist International and Sister Cities International.

These were not token memberships, Kenyon said, noting that Mueller served in leadership positions in most of them and as a delegate to conferences around the world.

Despite a busy private practice, Mueller provided pro bono services through the Voluntary Legal Services Program. Friends and colleagues recalled a particular case in 2001 when Mueller agreed to help a young mother in California regain custody of her children whose father had taken them out of state and kept them for months after the end of a scheduled visitation. Mueller used her frequent-flier miles to fly her and her client to Atlanta for a crucial custody hearing and paid the costs of their hotel. The children arrived home a few weeks before Christmas.

Christian Mueller said his mother’s attitude was always one of “getting on with things. She didn’t dwell on the past.”

In the context of her legal career, he said, “It never occurred to her to let anything sexist interfere with doing the job.”

In addition to her son, Christian of Toronto, Canada, Mueller is survived by her daughter, Lisa Turcotte of Quincy, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Christian Mueller said a gathering to celebrate his mother’s life is being planned and likely will be held at the family home in Sacramento in June.

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy