Sunset Park

From growing up in Sunset Park to administrative judge of the family court

February 1, 2016 By Rob Abruzzese Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Judge Jeanette Ruiz, who went from Sunset Park to the top seat in New York City’s Family Court, was the daughter of two Puerto Rican immigrants. Eagle photo by Mario Belluomo
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When the Hon. Jeanette Ruiz was growing up on the streets of Sunset Park, there weren’t any judges who looked like her: both female and Hispanic. But she didn’t let that stop her from becoming one of the most well-respected judges in the city court system as administrative judge of the New York City Family Court.

“I really care a lot about people, I care a lot about fairness, equality, and wanted to make the world a better place,” Ruiz said. “My interest was always in helping people, wanting to give back because, in many ways, I had certain opportunities that not everyone had.”

Ruiz grew up as the oldest of two children in a working-class family in Sunset Park. Her father, who worked in a mattress factory as an adult, came to the U.S. as a teenager in the 1930s. Her mother, who worked in an electrical factory, came later, just after WWII, in the 1940s.

The family never had a lot of money, but owned a home on 53rd Street that had a fence and a yard with a cherry tree in the back. Ruiz described the house and the tight-knit neighborhood as something out of an old movie. It was growing up poor in a neighborhood where people were held back because they could not speak English that taught Ruiz the importance of education.

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“My mother used to tell me, ‘I don’t have money to leave you. The only inheritance I can leave you is a good education,’ and it worked,” Ruiz said. “That sense of hard work and the idea of giving back to your community were two things they always instilled in me.”

Not everyone was so encouraging, though. Ruiz had aspired from a young age to become a doctor after reading a book about Madame Curie, but was told that she should give up on such dreams by a guidance counselor at John Jay High School. So she went to Hunter College to become a caseworker instead.

Ruiz was a caseworker for three years before she decided to go to Columbia University to get her master’s degree. She was a social worker for four more years. It was during this time that she developed a passion for helping others, but often felt held back by her lack of knowledge of the law, so she decided to go to law school at Georgetown.

During her first day at law school, she met Judge Ricardo Urbina.

“My very first day of law school there was an orientation for the new students, and I met a judge who happened to be from New York, who was also Hispanic and was living in D.C. at the time. Just listening to him made me feel like, wow, maybe I want to be a judge.”

Urbina became a mentor to Ruiz. She often visited him in his chambers and watched him in court, and he encouraged her to find a job as law clerk, a common path to the bench.

Law school ended with a tough life lesson for Ruiz, though, as her younger brother died of AIDS just three months before she was set to graduate. She had already secured her job as Judge Iraline Barnes’ law clerk, but she said it was a painful reminder of what’s really most important in life — family, people and relationships.

After clerking for a year, Ruiz returned to New York and got a job working as a general litigant in the New York City Law Department, and then worked as general counsel for the Harlem Dowling Westside Center for Children and Family Services. Later she worked as deputy commissioner for NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services. The jobs brought her closer to home and put her in a position where she could advocate for families.

Because of her background, Ruiz was a natural fit for becoming a Family Court judge. She was appointed to the bench in 2007 and eventually became supervising judge in 2012. Last October, she was appointed to administrative judge. She said that becoming a judge was one of the greatest achievements in her career, and feels like she has an opportunity to carve out an impactful legacy as administrative judge.

“I want to change how the court is perceived,” Ruiz said. “There are people within the court system’s sphere who acknowledge how much it’s changed over the years, but we can do more. Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson [her predecessor] did a herculean job, but there are still a lot of little things that can be improved.

“I’d like to see more training for judges, give them opportunities to work more closely with lawyers, children and their families, hopefully improve upon the services the court provides. I want to leave here feeling like I’ve made a difference in people’s lives.”

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