First Hispanic woman appointed U.S. District Court judge in N.J.Claire C. Cecchi, alum in nj.com, June 15, 2011
UNION CITY — When a fire destroyed 10-year-old Esther Salas's home in Union City, she found herself negotiating with the welfare worker, worried her mother, a Cuban immigrant, might be slighted or misunderstood.
Her family lost everything in the blaze, but Salas gained an interest in social justice and law that would stay with her long into her career.
Now, 32 years later, Salas’s nomination to become a judge in U.S. District Court in Newark has been unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The confirmation Tuesday makes her the first Hispanic woman in New Jersey to reach the bench.
"I am humbled and honored by President Obama and the Senate’s confidence in me," Salas said in a phone interview today. "For this little girl from Union City to grow up and become a U.S. District Judge — it’s beyond words."
Salas, 42, and fellow nominee Claire C. Cecchi, 46, were unanimously approved by the full Senate. Both have served as District Court magistrates in New Jersey since 2006.
Chief Judge Garrett E. Brown Jr. of the U.S. District Court in New Jersey has known both women for five years.
"I’m just delighted that such experienced, effective and highly qualified persons are joining our court," Brown said, adding that their appointments, which filled seats that have been vacant for a year, will relieve some stress on the court.
Salas, the youngest of five, says her mother always instilled the importance of education in her children. She earned her bachelor’s and law degrees from Rutgers University and then worked for nearly 10 years as a federal public defender. Salas became head of the Hispanic Bar Association in 2001 and was selected from a candidate pool of 99 to become New Jersey’s first Latina magistrate in 2006.
Off the bench Salas, who lives in Middlesex County, says she "lives for the weekend" when she can watch her 10-year-old son pitch on his traveling baseball team with her husband.
"People joke. They say, ‘You can preside over these cases but you’re a nervous wreck on the field,’" Salas said.
For Cecchi, a married mother of one, political science classes at Barnard College and Fordham University prompted her interest in law. Cecchi practiced law in New York and New Jersey for 17 years before joining being appointed as a magistrate in New Jersey.
Donald Robinson has practiced law for 57 years and worked with both women in Newark. He hired Cecchi as a lawyer in his firm when she moved to New Jersey.
"She is someone who is always prepared, writes thorough opinions and is fair to litigants and to lawyers," Robinson said.
Salas attributes much of her success to her role model, her mother, who has kept her safe and sane since that early fire in Union City. Her mother celebrated Salas’ ascent to magistrate five years ago, but was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is less aware of what Tuesday’s confirmation means.
"It’s bittersweet for me," Salas said, her voice breaking over the phone, "It’s a great moment though. And it’s important for me to accomplish this with her still here."