Inside Track: Bocanegra climbs legal ranks

Ottawa County assistant prosecutor learned value of hard work from migrant-worker parents.
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Juanita Bocanegra knew from an early age she wanted to be an attorney, even if she was unsure exactly what they did. Courtesy Ottawa County Prosecutor's Office

Juanita Bocanegra prides herself in having experienced both the defense and prosecutor’s sides of the courtroom.

The assistant prosecuting attorney for Ottawa County described herself as one of those weird people who always knew what they wanted to do.

Since first grade, when asked the obligatory question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she knew the answer was for her to be an attorney.

The young Bocanegra didn’t actually know what an attorney did, though, let alone the various areas of practice she could get into. But she was inspired by her parents who were migrant field workers and wanted a more comfortable career path for their daughter.

“I also knew attorneys, generally speaking, whatever field they were in, help people,” she said, “and I wanted to help people.”

Coming from a migrant family, Bocanegra said she learned to appreciate what hard work looks like. Her parents, who were migrants from Mexico most of their adult lives, worked from sun-up to sundown and only had elementary-level education.

“I learned to appreciate things like health insurance, paid vacation, working with people who come around you when there’s a family need,” Bocanegra said.

JUANITA BOCANEGRA
Organization:
Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office
Position: Assistant Prosecuting Attorney
Age: 45
Birthplace: Mexico (U.S. citizen)
Residence: Holland
Family: Husband, two adult daughters, father, and mother
Business/Community Involvement: Holland Hospital Board of Directors and Community Outreach Committee; Hispanic Latino Commission of Michigan and Executive Committee; Holland Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors and Executive Committee; Ready for School Board of Directors and Executive Committee; Holland chapter of Women Who Care member; Lakeshore Community Advisory Board for Chemical Bank; Movement West Michigan and Executive Committee; Holland/Zeeland Community Foundation, Distribution Committee and Executive Committee; Lakeshore Alliance Against Domestic & Sexual Violence; 2017 Minority Business Champion of the Year Award from the Michigan West Chamber of Commerce
Biggest Career Break: Privilege of working for Ronald J. Frantz at the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office

She also realized the labor value of consumer goods like the latest designer blue jeans. Even though certain brands were all the rage, she didn’t dare ask her parents for a $100 pair of jeans, because she knew it would take them two full days of work to earn that amount.

“To me it wasn’t worth it,” she said. “I knew they were getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning every day. They were working until 5 or 6 p.m. every night — hard, physical labor in the cold or in the rain — and I just didn’t want to put them through it. I also knew if I had asked, they would have made the sacrifice.”

Bocanegra’s family first came to Holland in 1979 when she started kindergarten, but her parents would migrate seasonally between Michigan and Texas for work, which was inconvenient for her studies, because the work season ended in the middle of the school year.

Fortunately for her, she had a math teacher who went the extra mile for her students and would mail Bocanegra her assignments from November through March while she was living in Texas and allowed her to keep up with the rest of the class.

“I was able to keep up with the class up until calculus,” she said. “I love math. Calculus is not math, I’m convinced.”

College was a taste of reality, she said. She didn’t have to work hard to make good grades in high school, but the work demands outside of class were greater in college.

Bocanegra achieved her B.A. from Grand Valley State University in 1997. After graduation, she found work as a legal assistant with Hann Persinger PC in Holland, where she was involved in criminal defense, family law, workers’ compensation, social security, disability and general litigation.

Bocanegra stayed with the firm through her graduate studies at Cooley Law School, which she found even more demanding. At the time, she began to ask herself if she was really cut out to be an attorney, she said.

Briefing cases was difficult for her to figure out initially, because there’s usually no black or white answer, she said. Cases involve a heavy amount of reading and interpretation, and often there can be multiple right answers, but the absolute best outcome remains unclear.

“It wasn’t like math, where two plus two always equals four,” she said. “Eventually by my second year, I learned how to do that, and it became much more manageable, and it even became enjoyable.”

Her hard work paid off. When she graduated Cooley in 2008, she’d racked up a top litigator award, certificates of merit, an honors scholarship, first place in a mock trial competition and made the Dean’s List.

Throughout high school and college, Bocanegra imagined she wanted to travel. She once had the vision of doing international corporate law for Coca-Cola, which as it is today was visible in every corner of the world. But when she married her husband and started having a family of her own, she instead decided to keep her work confined to West Michigan.

When she graduated law school, she knew from her experience with Hann Persinger that she wanted to get into family law. As a legal assistant, she had years of experience drafting pleadings and meeting with clients.

Bocanegra officially started practicing family law with Rhoades McKee in Grand Rapids. There she got into difficult conversations with the attorney she worked for and his partners, because she didn’t agree with the outcomes of certain criminal cases based on the evidence.

“They would come into the office, and I would say, ‘I don’t understand how you can sleep at night,’” she said. “You know that this person is guilty, and you just got them a ‘not guilty’ knowing they told you they did it.”

Her superiors explained to her it’s their job as attorneys to defend clients, and if the prosecutor doesn’t meet the burden of proof, or if the police made an error, then the defendant is not guilty. It’s not a technicality of the law. It is the law.

When a position with the Ottawa County Prosecutor’s Office opened up, one of Bocanegra’s defense colleagues at Rhoades McKee called her and recommended the job to her based on her always arguing for the other side.

Bocanegra said she took almost three months to put in the application, because it meant a huge pay cut to go from private practice at a big law firm in Grand Rapids to government work. Regardless, it was one of the best decisions of her life, she said.

“I don’t think being on this side of the law makes you any better or worse person than being on the other side of the law,” Bocanegra said. “My friends will tell you my biggest thing is own it … My biggest issue is with a lot of the people I worked with, the answer is not, ‘I didn’t do it.’ The answer is ‘prove it.’ And from there, for me, it’s game on.”

Working for the prosecutor’s office has given Bocanegra a greater family-work-life balance and made her more engaged in the community, she said.

The work is no less emotionally taxing, however. Bocanegra recalled a murder case she finished last year. A young child was left orphaned after the father was sentenced to prison for life after murdering the mother.

“Being able to see the defendant, who was a very nice gentleman, and knowing what his criminal history was — he was a violent offender even before this homicide — and knowing how he had killed this lady and left his child orphaned, I had a very hard time thinking this was the same man who had committed this murder,” Bocanegra said.

Another case spanning three years involved an undocumented woman with an abusive ex-boyfriend who would threaten to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on her if she ever called the police.

“My dad’s a U.S. citizen … we were never undocumented,” Bocanegra said. “But I worked with a lot of undocumented people … regardless of my personal legal status here, it really angers me that someone would use that to intimidate and physically and mentally abuse another person.”

Bocanegra said the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department has been vocal about telling residents it is not ICE, and deputies will not ask victims for legal status.

Bocanegra is currently on the ballot for 58th District Court Judge, which will be decided in November. Although it’s a state position, she still would be serving in Ottawa County from the bench if she wins.

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