VINELAND — City officials trumpeted a few firsts when Demetrica Todd-Ruiz became a municipal court judge in January.
She was not only the first woman to preside over the court, but also the first black person on the local bench, they said.
But Todd-Ruiz saw it differently.
“I’m looking at my career progression, not necessarily the issue of gender or race,” said Todd-Ruiz, who said she always wanted to be a judge. “I actually never looked at that.”
Then, she said, people started telling her about the importance of what happened.
“I said, OK, it’s not me, but I get it,’” Todd-Ruiz said.
The 49-year-old resident of Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, now presides over municipal court with fellow jurist Guy Killen. She’s also part of a growing number of women and minority judges in New Jersey.
While statistics on the makeup of New Jersey’s municipal court jurists weren’t available, a state Supreme Court report released in January shows growing diversity among the state’s Superior Court judges.
The report shows 35 percent of Superior Court judges are women now, compared with just 16 percent a decade ago. Their numbers increased from 65 in 1995 to 153 this year.
The number of minority Superior Court judges more than doubled during that time period, from 7 percent to nearly 18 percent. And the presence of black judges during that period rose from 4.5 percent about 9 percent.
“That’s good news,” Todd-Ruiz said. “It’s hopeful.”
Municipal court is the way most people encounter the judicial process. Municipal courts handle issues such as motor vehicle offenses and violations of local laws such as noise limits and failure to keep a neat property.
Mayor Anthony Fanucci said Todd-Ruiz’s previous experience as public defender and then prosecutor in Bridgeton Municipal Court, “along with her compassion for helping people, will make her an excellent judge.”
“This is a new day of inclusion in the city,” Fanucci said. “I believe all levels of city government should reflect Vineland’s diverse community and I will continue to make appointments in the future that reflect this objective.”
City Solicitor Rick Tonetta said the profession will shape people’s lives.
“She has demonstrated through her public service her desire to make a positive difference,” he said.
That also stems from Todd-Ruiz growing up in Cumberland County and graduating from the Bridgeton school district.
“I believe I can relate to the individuals that I will see on a daily basis,” she said.
Todd-Ruiz holds a master’s degree in taxation from Widener University. She was also graduated from Rutgers University’s School of Law.
She also has an extensive record of community service. Todd-Ruiz is a member of the Pittsgrove Township Planning Board, the treasurer of Completecare Health Network, and sits on the boards of the Bridgeton Police Athletic League, Seabrook House and Cumberland County Habitat for Humanity.
As for her plans for the municipal court here, Todd-Ruiz declined comment, saying she was prohibited from doing so by judiciary regulations.
Todd-Ruiz isn’t alone in her family when it comes to the law. She said her husband is in his second year of law school.
She also has a 15-year-old daughter, Jade — who likely won’t follow in Mom’s footsteps.
Asked if her daughter will enter the legal profession, Todd-Ruiz replied, “Not at all,” saying the teen is interested in cinematography.
And it’s her daughter who in part has Todd-Ruiz determined to be a good municipal court judge.
“I’ve always wanted to be a role model for my daughter, just because I want to be my best at all times,” Todd-Ruiz said.