Camelia Valdes ’96, Passaic County Prosecutor
Camelia M. Valdes was drawn to criminal justice at an early age. Born in the Bronx, New York to immigrant Dominican parents, raised in Newark, New Jersey and having experienced the ravages of crime in those communities, she resolved to find a meaningful way in which to contribute to advancing the law and public safety.
A first-generation college student, Valdes majored in sociology and criminal justice at Seton Hall University. She recognized that a J.D. would afford her with a powerful advocacy tool and chose Rutgers School of Law–Newark “because of its strong tradition and record of public advocacy.”
Camelia Valdes ’96
“Savor every moment of the law school experience and every lesson,” Valdes advises current students. She speaks fondly of her Rutgers’ years, noting in particular the camaraderie and support of her professors and classmates. “Among some of my favorite classes, I enjoyed Professor Gary Francione’s Criminal Law class, Professor Charles Jones’s Race and the Law Seminar, Professor Twila Perry’s Torts class and,” she adds, “luckily I survived Professor Ronald Chen’s Contracts class.”
Admittance into the “Minority Student Program family” by Dean Janice Robinson, MSP dean at the time, was her best law school experience. The Minority Student Program was “an important foundation for my success,” says Valdes, who credits the program’s support system and strong incentive to do well. “I took the responsibility of being an MSP student very seriously, because I knew my success would be MSP’s success. MSP graduates have led remarkable careers in public service and I wanted to be part of that rich tradition.”
Valdes’ determination and assurance are evident in her message to Rutgers law students: “Focus on the work, one course at a time. Pay attention to the legal principles, seek out writing opportunities, and do not be consumed with figuring out the rest of your career. You already have everything you need inside of you. Do not let anyone distract you from what you want to do.” Evident too is her support for mentoring and opportunity initiatives: “Plan to achieve but remember you are not alone in this struggle. All of us have to work hard every day to be better and to do better. There are people in your life right now that can help make it happen for you. For me, it is believers and cheerleaders who speak possibility and hope into my life.”
“While the role of prosecutor allows me the opportunity to investigate and prosecute crimes, it also affords me the opportunity to advocate for victims and seek justice.”
Since receiving her J.D. in 1996, Valdes has dedicated her career to government service, almost exclusively as a prosecutor. Explaining the attraction of the position, she says, “While the role of prosecutor allows me the opportunity to investigate and prosecute crimes, it also affords me the opportunity to advocate for victims and seek justice.”
Valdes began her career as a municipal prosecutor for the City of Newark and as a staff attorney at the Newark Teachers Union. She subsequently served as a deputy attorney general in the Division of Criminal Justice, as an assistant counsel in the Governor’s Counsel’s Office under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, and as an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey. Her federal prosecutorial experience ranged from the prosecution of white collar crimes and financial fraud against the government to the investigation and successful prosecution of federal criminal matters involving counter-terrorism, human trafficking, immigration offenses, drug and firearm related offenses and health care fraud crimes. Along the way she also found time to, among other activities, earn her LL.M. in Trial Advocacy from Temple University, serve as president of the Hispanic Bar Association and a trustee of the New Jersey State Bar, marry and have two children.
Sworn in as Passaic County Prosecutor in June 2009, Valdes made history as the first Latina county prosecutor in New Jersey, the first woman prosecutor in Passaic County, and the first lead prosecutor of Dominican ancestry in the United States.
Seven months into the job, Valdes has found the most difficult challenge to be working through the multi-dimensional issues of crime. She explains: “Working with other county and state stakeholders to address the complexity of criminal justice issues proactively is difficult when the Prosecutor’s Office must react and respond to daily emergent issues.” As for her position as New Jersey’s first Latina prosecutor, “my ethnicity has everything and nothing to do with the role I play,” she says. “What I mean by that is that while my life experiences certainly shape my view of the world, as the chief law enforcement officer in Passaic County I am concerned with three main things: facts, evidence and the law.”
Valdes has achieved a prominent position in a relatively short time out of law school. Asked to what she attributes her success and what career advice she would give others, she offers: “A wise man and dear friend, Christopher J. Christie, once told me that I would honor where I came from, and who I came from, by doing the best I could do in my work. After all, when the celebrations of this accomplishment fade, the work will remain and it is by the work and the choices I make, and not my age, gender, or ethnicity, that I will be judged.
“The secret, therefore, of my success is my absolute resolve to work tirelessly on behalf the public. Tenacity and the drive for achievement are my tributes to: 1) the sacrifices my parents made for my sisters and me, 2) the confidence my friends and colleagues place in me, and 3) my desire to contribute to safer communities.
“My personal advice is to reflect on your individual passion and then seek work experiences that reflect that passion. Work then will not be work but instead will become your life mission. I encourage all of you then to learn as much about the law and the rules as you can. The more informed you are, the more informed our communities can be. Focus on your work. Be accountable to your own development and seek out opportunities to show your gifts and talents. I realize I am asking you to do hard work, but I promise you this – If you establish your experience and develop a reputation for your work ethic, your body of work and legacy will be unquestionable.”