JERSEY CITY, NJ - On the Boulevard bus from Bayonne to Jersey City, a young Esther Suarez glanced out the window and saw a sign for a law firm reading “Suarez and Suarez.” Every day, she told her mother that one day that would be her – eventually, her dreams would come true.
Suarez, now serving as the Hudson County Prosecutor, was sworn into her current position in July 2015, making her the first Hispanic and woman chief prosecutor in the county’s 180-year history. In her unprecedented role, she oversees a staff of around 300 employees and works with the 17 police departments in the county. Suarez explained that she knew she wanted to practice law before she realized what it meant to go to law school.
“What I did know is that you are an advocate, you’re the mouthpiece, you’re the spokesperson for someone,” she says. “That having been my personality from a very young age, that’s what attracted me to it.”
Once Suarez became prosecutor, she implemented plans to take a proactive approach against violent crime in the county. She launched three new initiatives – the Hudson County Regional Collision Investigation Unit, Hudson County Regional SWAT, and Hudson County Regional Arson Task Force – which have facilitated violent criminal investigations in innovative ways. Currently, she is creating a Hudson County DNA lab and child advocacy center for underage victims of abuse. Suarez also bettered domestic violence prevention programs, such as sexual violence awareness training for hairdressers and campus sexual assault education.
Prior to her tenure as prosecutor, Suarez worked as a judge for the Superior Court of New Jersey, presiding over the civil division in Hudson County and the family division in Passaic County. She was transferred from Hudson to Passaic when Judge Donald Volkert Jr., former assignment judge for the Passaic vicinage, chose her to work in his district. Volkert expressed that in addition to her natural leadership, he wanted to increase diversity in the Passaic County courtrooms, making Suarez a natural fit.
“50 percent of all the people in matrimonial cases happen to be women and we didn’t have any female judges in family at the time,” he reflected. “So, I told the chief that we really had to do something about that, and he was in agreement. I asked for who I wanted, and I got them. And [Suarez] was one of them.”
According to Volkert, Suarez accepted her new position with ease and acclimated quickly to family law. During her time on the bench, Suarez was exposed to various cases of relationship violence, including domestic abuse. She explained to TAPinto that many of her initiatives as prosecutor were shaped by these cases.
“I think that was the one that impacted me the most, domestic violence,” she said. “I was always a staunch supporter of women, but it wasn’t until I sat in the family division and domestic violence that I got a real hands-on view of what people are living through.”
Although Suarez enjoyed her time on the bench, she explained that her favorite part of being the prosecutor is working with the community. She has increased the amount of presentations her office gives at Hudson County schools, which has allowed her to develop a positive relationship with children at an early age.
“I felt like we needed to get in front of these kids so they can see that anybody can do this,” Suarez said. “In order to create change, we need to be a part of that change.”
Volkert noted that Suarez has always had an inclination for community outreach. In her time as a judge in Passaic County, he assigned her to coordinate Law Day, a holiday created by President Eisenhower in 1958 to celebrate the rule of law.
“We did mock trials, we went out to the high schools and put on cases, so it’s a very, very important program,” says Volkert. “It serves a very significant purpose in terms of community outreach, and so I put [Suarez] in charge of that.”
In addition to combating violent crime and community engagement, Suarez has worked to increase diversity in Hudson County law enforcement. She doubled the diversity in her office and increased diversity among detectives to 49 percent. The prosecutor also noticed the trouble veterans often face when seeking employment post-deployment, leading her to double the number of veterans her office has hired in detective and prosecutorial positions.
In the small amount of free time she has, Suarez likes to read and spend time with her family. She had various role models throughout her time practicing law, but someone she holds in especially high regard is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. As a Hispanic woman, Suarez notes that she sees herself in Sotomayor.
“She was from the South Bronx and my congressman was from the South Bronx, she’s a Yankee fan as am I, she’s considered to have liberal leanings but she’s a bit of a centrist, and I think that’s called reasonableness,” says Suarez. “She’s somebody to me that I would want to have dinner with.”
Suarez understands that her job is much larger than herself. She not only wants to lead her community, but also to provide emotionally-sensitive closure for families that have been impacted by crime.
“You could be dispensing of justice and making decisions, but also helping people through the process,” she says.
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