RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Just before Christmas in 2003, a twin-engine Cessna plane crashed into the Claremont, Calif., home of Sheri N. Pym. The house was destroyed and the pilot was killed.
Judge Pym, then a lawyer in the United States attorney’s office in Riverside, Calif., was unharmed, as were her husband and children. She was later matter-of-fact in recounting the tale.
“A plane crashed into my house. Not good,” she told Stephen G. Larson, who was then a judge in the Federal District Court for the Central District of California.
“Someone else might get overly excited, but Sheri was incredibly steady,” said Mr. Larson, now a local lawyer. “She stays calm under pressure.”
The incident offers clues as to how Judge Pym may handle another pressure-filled situation. Now a federal magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the Central District of California in Riverside, Judge Pym is presiding over legal arguments between Apple and the United States government regarding whether the company must help law enforcement break into an iPhone used by a killer in last year’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday. But on Monday, Judge Pym granted a Justice Department request to cancel the hearing because it may no longer need Apple’s help gaining access to the iPhone. Justice Department lawyers said they would file a progress report by April 5.
When — or if — the case should return the courtroom, Judge Pym, 48, is likely to scrutinize Apple on its opposition to weakening the security of the iPhone and also to examine the Justice Department’s legal arguments for pushing the company to do so.
The case is widely viewed as a watershed moment in the long-running fight between the tech industry and the government over how and when authorities can use the troves of personal data collected and stored by tech companies. It could affect the boundaries between privacy and national security for years to come.
“She really needs to think this through” because subsequent judges will “closely read” her opinion, said Patrick J. Coughlin, who oversaw Judge Pym when they both worked as lawyers at the Southern California law firm Milberg Weiss.
If Judge Pym should rule on the case, an appeal is likely from Apple or the Justice Department — or both. It could go to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and then to the Supreme Court.
Judge Pym did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Over a more than two-decade legal career, Judge Pym has not specialized in technology or privacy cases. During stints as a federal judge, federal prosecutor and an associate at Milberg Weiss, she instead worked on a variety of cases, including mortgage fraud, tobacco-related litigation and prison assaults.
The technology company has been locked in a major legal battle against law enforcement officials over privacy and security.
But Judge Pym is not unfamiliar with the tech industry. About a third of her work at Milberg Weiss focused on class-action lawsuits that involved Silicon Valley tech companies, Mr. Coughlin said.
She has been a magistrate judge since 2011, and her duties have included handling petty offenses and misdemeanors, as well as pretrial matters, conducting settlement conferences and sometimes trials — the sort of work that rarely draws national attention.
Yet with the national spotlight now on her, several of Judge Pym’s former colleagues said she would not be fazed by the situation.
“When the Apple thing broke, I looked to see who the judge was, and I almost fell off the chair when I saw that it was Sheri,” said Timothy G. Blood, a partner at Blood Hurst & O’Reardon, who worked on consumer protection class-action cases with Judge Pym when she was at Milberg Weiss. “She can completely handle it. When a plane hit her house, her attitude was, ‘What are you gonna do?’ ”
Judge Pym, a Seattle native, graduated with a philosophy degree from Williams College in 1989 before going into law. (Her husband, Peter G. Thielke, is a philosophy professor at Pomona College in Claremont.)
After getting a law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, Judge Pym joined Milberg Weiss in 1994. She left the firm in 2001, five years before Milberg Weiss was indicted on charges of paying kickbacks to plaintiffs over the course of 25 years. (The indictment was later dropped after the firm settled.)
Judge Pym then became an assistant United States attorney in the Central District of California in 2002, rising to chief of the Riverside office in 2006, where she worked on everything from felonies to misdemeanors.
“She took care of what we called ‘C.V.B.’ matters, which are misdemeanors and citations that are the least-attractive cases,” said Mr. Larson, who has filed a brief in the Apple case in support of the government’s position. “She handled them with the same care and attention that others might give the most glamorous cases.”
The San Bernardino shooting last December, when Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people at the Inland Regional Center in the city, took place about 10 miles from Judge Pym’s courthouse. Since then, the court has been dealing with legal matters connected with the San Bernardino investigation.
Judge Pym and another judge in the United States District Court for the Central District of California in Riverside, David T. Bristow, have been involved in making decisions about search warrants in the investigation. On Feb. 16, Judge Pym ordered Apple to comply with the government’s request to weaken its iPhone security so that law enforcement officials could extract data from the device used by Mr. Farook.
Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, immediately opposed the order in an open letter, setting off the clash between the company and the federal government. The battle has turned increasingly rancorous, with both sides trading barbs in a series of legal filings. President Obama has also weighed in, saying this month that law enforcement must be legally able to collect information from smartphones and other electronic devices.
Mr. Coughlin, who worked with Judge Pym at Milberg Weiss and is now an lawyer at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, said he disagreed with Judge Pym’s original order compelling Apple to help break into the iPhone.
“I know Sheri would have thought the original order through very carefully,” he said. “When she finally makes her decision, you won’t find any holes in her opinion.”
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