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Puerto Rico Born Jurist, Julio Fuentes, Sworn In As First Latino Judge On U.S. Court Of Appeals For The Third Circuit

by Paul Kane and David Voreacos

May 14, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE RECORD. All Rights Reserved.

As a boy, Julio Fuentes couldn't have imagined that the dirt road outside his family's Lakehurst chicken farm would lead him to one of the nation's most coveted judicial posts.

Born in Puerto Rico, he moved as a small child to New York City with his mother and brother. But a nursing job in Lakehurst soon led Fuentes mother to pack up again and move into a five-bedroom farmhouse crowded with cousins.

"It was a farm on a dirt road. There were about 12 of us living there," recalled Fuentes. "As a child, at 5 years old, you don't think these are very meager accommodations. . . . It's better than what you had before."

Fuentes, 54, will doubtless reflect on his humble roots when he enters an ornate Newark courtroom Monday to be sworn in to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after spending 22 years as a municipal and state court judge.

With his appointment by President Clinton and confirmation by the Senate, Fuentes is the first Hispanic appointed to the appeals court in Philadelphia. He also is only the 10th Hispanic named to any of the 12 circuit courts, which are one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.

As one of a dozen active judges on the 3rd Circuit, Fuentes will hear appeals on every possible criminal and civil issue arising from district courts in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands.

In short, he will be a long way from that dusty road in Lakehurst.

"It's quite a contrast, isn't it," Fuentes said in Superior Court in Newark, where he has sat since 1987. "This is indeed a land of opportunity."

Fuentes last served as the presiding judge in the general equity division, after sitting in the criminal, civil, and family divisions. A married father of three daughters who lives in North Caldwell, he also worked for a decade as the municipal judge in Newark and spent several years in private practice.

Superior Court Judge Donald J. Volkert Jr., who worked with him for eight years, said Fuentes never had to raise his voice to control his courtroom.

"He's an extraordinary individual," Volkert said. "He's probably one of the most honorable and decent people I have ever met in my life.

He's got the perfect demeanor for a judge. He is patient, soft- spoken, and never rushes."

New Jersey's lawyers have given Fuentes high marks. They rated him 45th overall out of 348 state judges in a survey of 2,595 lawyers conducted by New Jersey Law Journal in January 1999. The lawyers rated Fuentes 13th for his demeanor and 29th in his freedom from racial bias.

Although he has never worked as a federal judge, he should have no trouble fitting in on the 3rd Circuit, said retired Essex County Assignment Judge Alvin Weiss.

"He's a hardworking judge and very scholarly," Weiss said.

While Fuentes supporters applaud his varied legal background, they also say his hardscrabble roots help him understand other people's experiences.

"I recommended Judge Fuentes as much because of his life experience as because of his legal background," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, the Englewood Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Hispanic lawmakers and advocates say Fuentes appointment is a powerful symbol for the 3rd Circuit's 1.5 million Latinos. They also expect it to resonate among the nation's 30 million Hispanics, who await the appointment of one of their own to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We as a community need to believe that for the system of justice to work, we need to walk into a courthouse and see someone from our community, just as others can see someone from theirs," said Rep. Robert Menendez, D-Union City.

His supporters hope Hispanic children will emulate Fuentes success.

"He's a great role model for kids growing up in similar circumstances," said Ramon De La Cruz of Ridgefield, regional president of the Hispanic National Bar Association.

While Fuentes is happy to blaze a trail, he said the law should always remain colorblind.

"We are still one country, and we are treated accordingly," he said.

Throughout his childhood, Fuentes mother kept trying to improve her lot. She worked eight-hour shifts at a Lakehurst hospital before toiling another eight hours in a nursing home. Fuentes and his older brother, Jose Mercado, spent much of their free time with their cousins, aunts, and uncles.

Fuentes looks back at his mother's shining example with great pride. After a few years of living on the chicken farm, she saved up enough money to buy a home in Toms River.

"She always moved for a better opportunity," he recalled.

Fuentes attended Southern Illinois University for two years before joining the Army in 1966. After a three-year hitch, he returned to college and got his law degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He also completed master's degrees at Rutgers and New York universities while practicing law.

"Judge Fuentes life demonstrates the promise of America the idea that anyone committed to getting an education and working hard can build a distinguished career," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Hispanic legal advocates began boosting Fuentes candidacy for the federal bench two years ago. He appeared headed for the district court, but White House officials were so impressed with his credentials that Clinton nominated him to the appeals court in March 1999.

After languishing in the Senate Judiciary Committee until February, the appointment was confirmed by the full Senate on March 7.

While ecstatic with Monday's ceremony, De La Cruz hopes that Fuentes will be the first of many Hispanic judges appointed to the federal bench. In New Jersey, only U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez, who recently moved to senior status , is Hispanic.

"Hopefully, it's not just tit for tat, that he's not just replacing the one Hispanic judge," Rodriguez said.

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