Judges and lawyers from across the state gathered at the New Jersey Law Center on Nov. 20 to honor Judge Joseph A. Turula, presiding judge of the Civil Division in the Hudson Vicinage, and Judge Julio L. Mendez, assignment judge in the Atlantic/Cape May Vicinage.
The judges received the New Jersey State Bar Association Diversity Committee’s Justice Thurgood Marshall Award for advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
In moving remarks, both jurists reflected on the legacy of the Supreme Court legend for whom the award is named, and advocated for the importance of a Judiciary that reflects the diversity of New Jersey.
Judge Mendez recalled immigrating to the United States from Cuba—with a stopover in Spain. “I am proud to be a lawyer, “ he said, reflecting on how he passed the bar just six years after coming to the U.S. Mendez noted Justice Marshall’s practice of “attacking inequality to the courts was pragmatic and effective,” and said he believed the judge would have been proud of initiatives like criminal justice reform and other actions the New Jersey Judiciary has embraced.
Judge Turula also echoed Justice Marshall’s words, particularly his belief that “none of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody—a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns—bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”
He thanked the mentors, parents, and others in his own life who helped him. “The reason I’m here is because of them,” Turula said.
He also reflected on how as a gay, cisgender white man, his experience with diversity was different from a person of color, but how he learned about the importance of being an “upstander” in the face of injustice and biases in life and the profession. Turula quoted the Tyler Clementi Foundation’s “upstander pledge,” noting that Nov. 20 was the international “transgender day of remembrance,” and asked the crowd to be “mindful of the continuing quest for equality and justice” and to “help others pick up their boots.”
NJSBA President Evelyn Padin said that as the first Latina president of the state bar, having a profession that reflects the diversity of the state “is of paramount importance to me.”
“A diverse Judiciary increases the public confidence in our justice system and is a moral imperative that has long been a subject of discussion, and, yes, concern in the New Jersey legal world,” she said.
Padin said of the 438 judges in the combined state courts, 38 are African American, 30 Latino or Hispanic, six Asian American, and two identify as “other.”
A diverse legal community, Padin said, “means so much more than a number. It is possibility. It is power.”