Retiring District of Columbia Court of Appeals Judge Vanessa Ruiz - the first and only Hispanic judge on the city's highest court - lamented the lack of diversity on local benches during a talk last night, saying that while it's fine to be first, "to still be the only is not fine."
Ruiz, who took retired status in August, spoke Thursday night at a Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia event honoring her 17 years on bench. The evening featured a conversation between Ruiz and District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo.
Association President William Rivera noted in his opening remarks that there are only four Hispanic judges out of more than 90 on the District of Columbia Superior Court, including Puig-Lugo, and only one on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Ricardo Urbina, who took senior status earlier this year and will retire in March. Rivera said that despite progress, the numbers are a sign of "how much we still need to do."
Ruiz said that after working in private practice for more than 15 years, she set her sights on a job in public service. She applied and was recommended for a judgeship in 1991 but wasn’t chosen as the White House’s nominee, so she accepted a position in the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel, now known as the Office of the Attorney General.
She said that if she was going to continue working as an attorney, she knew that she wanted “to be working on something that I feel has intrinsic value.” When she tried a second time for a judgeship in 1994, she won the nomination. Being a judge appealed to her “sense of justice and fairness,” she said, adding that, being Hispanic, she also felt she could bring a different perspective to the bench.
Puig-Lugo, who also wasn’t nominated his first time applying, said he was inspired to apply for the trial court because it offered a chance to deal directly with litigants, given the vast number of people who come to Superior Court without a lawyer.
Ruiz said that being an appellate judge can be “very isolating,” given the lack of time spent interacting with litigants as compared to Superior Court. But she said that the distance also helps her focus on the tremendous reading and research she needs to do for each case.
Ruiz also spoke about her work on the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, where she has pushed for a resolution adopting national standards for language access in courts. She said she realized there was a need when the Spanish-speaking janitorial staff in the courthouse began asking her for help translating documents, from letters from their children’s teacher to court summonses.
“It told me that there was really a huge need,” she said, also saying that she felt frustrated that she couldn’t do more to help them navigate the system. The language access resolution didn’t pass at this year’s ABA conference in August, but Ruiz said she is “reinvigorated” to try again at the next meeting in February.
Ruiz said she is retiring to spend more time with her family, travel and work on other projects.