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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Judge Juan Ramon Sanchez Strives To Pass Along Love Of Law

By Kathleen Brady Shea

June 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

As Chester County Judge Juan Ramon Sanchez surveyed the beige behemoth of a housing project he had once called home, residents of the Millbrook complex in South Bronx speculated out loud about who he might be.

Dressed in a navy suit and tie, the 47-year-old jurist was surmised to be a developer, a model, or a senator. Only one bystander got it right: "He's definitely an important person."

Standing next to Building D, Sanchez shrugged off the contrast between the broken glass and graffiti in the entrance and the stately surroundings he has occupied since 1998 in the Chester County Courthouse.

"I'm not the only success story," he said, citing a state representative and a high school principal who also came from the project. "There's probably a senator in there right now," he said, pointing to the towering examples of 1960s-era public housing. "A senator in the making."

Now, Sanchez is using the same energy he needed to survive in a neighborhood that a local paper once called the "homicide capital of New York" to educate people about the legal system - any way he can. The venues vary, ranging from his own courtroom to classrooms.

In April 1969, Sanchez moved to New York from Puerto Rico. He was 13 and spoke little English. His divorced mother envisioned a better life there for herself and her three children.

The family spent its first months in an absentee-landlord apartment across the street from Millbrook. The housing project was a step up, Sanchez said. "Things like heat were more reliable."

Sanchez worked tirelessly over the summer to acquire language and survival skills.

"Violent gangs like the Lucky Sevens and Young Lords were prevalent," Sanchez said, pointing to a street corner where a murder had been committed. "Members wore colors, so you knew who to avoid."

Sanchez had plenty of fight in him, too, but he channeled it differently. When he started school in the South Bronx, he was placed in an English as a second language class - and was quickly frustrated by the slow pace.

So he urged his mother to set up a meeting with the principal. Using limited English - and also serving as a translator for his mother - Sanchez negotiated a two-week tryout. "I told him that if I couldn't make it during that time, I'd go back to ESL," he said.

He never went back - and he also never lost his tenacious drive to succeed.

"He works really hard and expects everyone else to do the same," said First Assistant Public Defender J. Graham Andes, who has worked with Sanchez in various roles for more than 20 years.

Sanchez said his decision to pursue a career in law evolved after considering music, art, aviation - even professional baseball. "I was too small," he said of the latter.

But baseball played an indirect role in Sanchez's career choice, because it introduced him to a pivotal role model: a police officer in the housing project whom he remembers only by the name Bumper.

After watching Sanchez and his friends play ball on a small grassy patch under the Triborough Bridge, Bumper hooked them up with the Police Athletic League.

"He reinforced respect for the law," Sanchez said. "I bet he has no idea how much he influenced our behavior."

Sanchez said another positive influence was the ASPIRA Association, a national nonprofit organization devoted to the education and leadership development of Puerto Rican and other Latino youth. Through ASPIRA, Sanchez learned to organize outreach activities, and he solidified his career choice.

"All my life experiences emphasized solid, family values, those of hardworking, humble, God-fearing people with respect for the law," he said. "I realized that the law touches every aspect of human interaction."

So after graduating cum laude from City College of the City University of New York, Sanchez moved on to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he received an award for outstanding public service.

Sanchez ascended to the Chester County bench at the age of 42. Before that, he worked in private practice, for Legal Aid of Chester County, and for the Public Defender's Office.

Well-known as a workaholic, Sanchez had to make some adjustments when he became a judge. To wit: Scheduling a case at 7:30 a.m. did not go over well with participants, especially since the courthouse does not open until 8 a.m.

"I was just so used to getting started early," he said. "I didn't even give it a second thought; I learned a lesson."

He still arrives at the courthouse about 7 a.m., but he waits until 8:05 to schedule conferences. And he's just as likely to be at the courthouse at 8 p.m.

Not everyone shares Sanchez's reverence for the law. It's no secret that the judge has a low tolerance for unprepared lawyers and repeat offenders. So, on occasion, both leave Courtroom Six grousing under their breath.

Sanchez bristles slightly at the suggestion he's obsessed with the law, but he won't turn down an opportunity to promote it. Often, he creates opportunities.

"The best way to show how fortunate I am is by giving back," he said.

Toward that end, Sanchez approached this year's Meet the Judges program with a flair worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. Sanchez's big cast - including fellow jurists, lawyers and citizens - and dramatic mock-trial productions transformed a poorly attended meet-and-greet session into a crowd-pleaser.

And even though many participants were happy to rest when it ended, Sanchez's adrenaline persisted, spilling over into a course he wrote and pitched to area universities.

Sanchez's "Fast Forward Look at a Career in Litigation," which was picked up by West Chester University and Immaculata University, is designed to give students a preview of lawyering. And, like Meet the Judges, Sanchez capitalizes on mock trials and myriad volunteers.

"If I can influence one or two students before they even become lawyers, I feel that I'm making a contribution," he said.

Peter Hart, a former Chester County Bar Association president, shares Sanchez's interest in public education and is a frequent Sanchez collaborator.

"It's easy to criticize the court," Hart said. "The judge uses his abundant energy and exuberance to counter the bad publicity by showing people how the judiciary works."

Sanchez, who has two grown sons - Juan Pablo, 23, and Anthony, 27 - deflects questions about widespread speculation that he is destined for the federal bench.

"I'm fortunate to serve the citizens of Chester County. I love this job, and I'm going to perform it to the best of my ability."

Joseph "Skip" Brion, head of the county's Republican Party, says Sanchez's name does appear on a list of federal candidates.

"I think he would be a great addition to the federal bench," he said.

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