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Hon. Esther Salas ’94 – First Latina on New Jersey District Court

“Hard work and determination” are what the Honorable Esther Salas ’94 instructs law students who ask her advice on achieving a rewarding career. Those attributes only partially explain the striking career trajectory of Judge Salas, newly confirmed by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate to the U.S. District Court for New Jersey. Others speak of her intellect and passion, her generous spirit, a commitment to public service, and a respect for education and family instilled by her mother.

 Judge Esther Salas  
 Hon. Esther Salas ’94
 

In comments on her Senate confirmation, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez ’79 said: “Judge Esther Salas is one of the most highly respected magistrate judges in New Jersey and I am pleased that her nomination to the District Court has been confirmed. Judge Salas will be the first ever Latina to be appointed to the New Jersey District Court, making this a historic nomination. Her story is testament to the quality of education that Rutgers provides its students and the important role it plays in forming the next generation of leaders in our state.”

Judge Salas, who as an undergraduate interned in the Middlesex County Public Defender’s office, headed directly to law school after receiving her B.A. in 1991 from Rutgers College, New Brunswick, where she was a political science major with a double minor in philosophy and Puerto Rican and Caribbean Studies. “Rutgers Law School has a great reputation for offering an exceptional educational experience while remaining affordable,” she offered. “There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to attend Rutgers Law School.”

Looking back on those three years, “I would have to say that my entire experience was memorable and influential,” Judge Salas said. “Every one of my professors, including but not limited to Professors Chen and Jones, had an impact on how I viewed the law. In particular, through the teachings of Professor Jones, my interest in criminal law flourished, which led to my decision to become a criminal defense lawyer.” (Note: Professor Ronald Chen is now Vice Dean Chen and Professor Charles Jones is an Emeritus Professor.)

Among her law school honors and activities, Judge Salas was a Marie Slocum Memorial Scholar, a vice president of the Association of Latin American Law Students, and a Student Bar Association representative. Most significantly, she participated in the Minority Student Program (MSP), of which she continues to be an ardent supporter.

“Without a doubt,” Judge Salas stated, “my participation in the Minority Student Program was instrumental in my professional success. Dean Jan Robinson, who was MSP Dean at the time, and her entire staff helped guide me through the challenges I confronted in law school. The program offered academic support, which was critical during my first year. In addition, MSP provided me with an immeasurable amount of support and encouragement that extended far beyond traditional academic support. That unyielding support got me through some tough times and in the end provided me with the strength and courage to pursue my professional goals.”

   

“Without a doubt, my participation in the Minority Student Program was instrumental in my professional success.”


 

After receiving her J.D., Judge Salas served as a law clerk to the Hon. Eugene J. Codey, Jr. of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex County. From 1995 to 1997, she was an associate at Garces & Grabler, P.C., Plainfield, where she focused her practice primarily on criminal matters and handled appellate work. She served as an Assistant Federal Public Defender from 1997 until 2006 when she was selected from among 99 applicants as U.S. Magistrate Judge for the District of New Jersey, becoming the first Latina in that position.

Judge Salas’s private and public sector experiences have prepared her well for the new challenges of a U.S District Court judge. Having worked for almost a decade in the Office of the Federal Public Defender, she knows first hand how much time and effort an attorney expends in preparing submissions to the court. “With that in mind,” she said, “as a Judge I thoroughly review all submissions and carefully deliberate over any matter prior to rendering a decision.”

All of her experiences as a U.S. Magistrate Judge will undoubtedly assist her on the District Court. “For close to five years,” she said, “I have been blessed to work with some phenomenal District Judges. These judges have taught me so much and have provided invaluable insight on the judicial process. The responsibilities of managing a docket of well more than 300 cases, presiding over dispositive motions on a report and recommendation basis, ruling on a whole host of discovery disputes, and presiding over criminal matters will better prepare me for my new position.”

The daughter of Cuban and Mexican immigrants, Judge Salas is a past president of both the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey and the Hispanic Bar Foundation of New Jersey. Among other public service activities, she has been a member of the Governor’s Hispanic Advisory Committee for Policy Development, the Supreme Court Committee on Minority Concerns, and the Supreme Court Committee on Women in the Courts.

Asked what career advice she would offer current students, particularly minority students, Judge Salas said: “The one piece of advice that I would offer any student, especially a minority student, is to believe. There will be many times that you doubt yourself and your abilities. It is imperative that you work through the self doubt and forge ahead. Be proud of who you are and never lose sight of that which makes you special. Embrace your differences and stay true to yourself while remembering that success is earned through hard work and determination.”