Six Figures: A New York judge devoted to making life better for Latinos

The reverential judge, Rita Mella, was born and raised in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She came to the U.S. when she was 22-years-old, with limited English skills. Just last month, she won the Democratic nomination, receiving 60 percent of the vote, and will run unopposed in November to become the first immigrant and the first Latina Manhattan Surrogate — one of the most prestigious trial court seats in the U.S.

“It was through hard work and perseverance that I was able to go to law school, become a lawyer, and then become a judge,” says Mella who graduated from the City University of New York School of Law and who was primarily inspired by her people.

She came to the U.S. by herself via a scholarship to the University of Florida, and afterwards moved to a heavily-populated Latino community in New York City in the 1980s.

“What I found was a community in crisis,” remembers Mella, who is now 50. “Mostly immigrants were facing a number of challenges such as, housing problems, immigrationproblems, and access to public benefits problems. [The problems] all had something in common — the law. I decided to go to law school to gain legal skills in order to assist the community to do better.”

Mella says she approached the law from the perspective of using it as a tool for change and as a tool to help people in need. Currently, as a civil court judge, she handles criminal matters.

“When I become a Surrogate on January 3rd, I will be handling mostly civil matters that refer to will and estates of people who died in New York,” says Mella. “I will also be handling adoptions and guardianships of children and young adults who are either orphans or who need special assistance.”

She says she hadn’t planned on becoming a judge.

“It’s an opportunity that presented itself as a result of my many years of work, and my involvement in community matters and organizations,” says Mella, who used to be an assistant to Judge Margarita Lopez Torres, and that it was the combination of those two elements which made it possible for her to run for a court seat. “You need a lot of community support to do that…I’ve been working with a lot of issues having to do with immigration rights, housing, women’s rights, but in general if I had to describe them under one category, it would be social justice issues.”

She says what she loves most about her job is waking up every day and knowing that she can make a difference in people’s lives.

“A day in which like today for instance, I had sent someone to complete a drug treatment program instead of sending him to jail,” says Mella. “Today, he graduated from that program, and I gave him a certificate of completion, and he now has a job working for an ambulance company. It is wonderful.”

She says she’s looking forward to serving her 14-year term and is also planning to continue to teach administrative law.

“It’s about growing all together,” says Mella who was once told to work hard to accomplish your goals but never forget where you came from. “That has helped me a lot. It gives me the purpose for fighting, because it reminds me that even though I’m gaining a lot of personal satisfaction, I’m also doing it for the larger community.”

This is something she learned at home from her parents, she says.

“Staying home and doing nothing was never a choice,” says the humble judge. “It was always about working to help others so that we can build a better world.”

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