Newark Judge Gives Inspirational Speech on Campus

Photo by Hannah Reasoner

U.S. District Judge Jose Linares – the first Hispanic and foreign-born judge to be on the bench in federal court in Newark – visited Ramapo on Wednesday to discuss how he overcame obstacles on his path to becoming a judge.

The event organized by the Student Government Association, the Center for Student Involvement and trustee Sharlene Vichness is part one of a two part series that hosts speakers on the American judicial system.

President Peter Mercer started off the event by addressing the recent protests on campus.

“I wrote to the college last Friday noting that we’re a campus that thrives when we demonstrate mutual understanding and goodwill toward one another,” said Mercer. “It’s my expectation that Judge Linares’ remarks today will contribute to and inspire rich discussion, critical thinking and, perhaps most important in times like these, compassion.”

Linares began by explaining that most of his speaking engagements are law events and that it was an honor to be able to speak to a group of people he does not typically address.

“Speaking to college and high school students is really special … because I think you represent the future. You represent what America looks like and what America is going to look like in the future,” he said.

Born in Havana, Cuba, Linares and his family lived through both the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eventually, when Linares was 12, they were able to move to the U.S.

“We arrived in this country not knowing the culture, the culture is different, not knowing the language and not really having a place to go economically,” he said.

Linares explained that education became a family affair as his parents also began going to college on the weekends. It was only after his family met with a lawyer who helped them avoid eviction that Linares looked toward a job in law and public service.

“One thing that my parents always knew, though, was that education was an important component, because they knew it was something that could never be taken away from you,” he said. “They instilled that in me and in my brothers that we needed to continue through school.”

Linares expressed his initial disbelief that an immigrant with his background would grow up to hold such an important position.

“If you told me at age 13 or 14 as I was struggling to learn the English language that someday I would get a call from the president of the United States telling me that I was going to be appointed to the Federal Bench, that idea seemed totally insurmountable and totally unbelievable,” he said.

By sharing his family’s struggles, he urged students to never think that an obstacle is too big to overcome.

“Going to a state college in New Jersey did not keep me from that career path either. Sometimes people think things like this happen only to people who go to Harvard, or Yale or NYU – and that’s not true. The truth of the matter is your career path is dictated by you and the effort you want to put into it and how much you believe in yourself that you can achieve these things,” he said.

Linares continued by saying too many students choose their career paths based on money and ability to repay their student loans rather than based on doing something they truly love. According to Linares, neither Ivy League schools nor money determine your success.

“I think a great deal of your success once you get out of here is based on networking … because you get to meet all kinds of people from all kinds of life that you don’t know what role they’re going to play in your life,” he said.

By getting involved in clubs, organizations and conventions that were similar to what he wanted to do, Linares met the man that would eventually pick up his application to be a federal judge and choose him for the job because of that prior relationship.

“It’s not as though I got an A on a test to get this job. I did a lot of other things that ultimately converged into being able to get there,” he said.

As a federal judge, the little boy who immigrated from Cuba now has the ability to make rulings on issues that happen in the air, in the water or over state or country borders.

“It’s a great American story, it really is, but it’s a story that can apply to any one of you. I wasn’t special, I didn’t get straight A’s … yet here I am,” said Linares.

Students in the audience had a chance to talk to Linares personally at a luncheon prior to the speech. They came away from both the conversations and the speech feeling inspired by his success story.

“I feel like I learned a lot more about how the federal court works and it was inspiring to hear such a story of hard work and success,” said sophomore Melanie Schlosser.

“There’s nothing wrong with having big dreams,” said President Mercer, “and if you’re willing to work hard, all sorts of prospects open to you.”