By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
VINELAND – Judge Demetrica Todd-Ruiz is a history-making judge, former Bridgeton prosecutor and a role model for scores of African-Americans in the community, but there comes a time where life needs you to be something more.
On Oct. 2, 2015, the daughter of Todd-Ruiz’s husband, Michael Ruiz, died as a member of the U.S. Air Force in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Airman 1st Class Kcey Ruiz was serving a part of a crew on a helicopter with 14 service members, contractors, and allied troops when it crashed as part of America’s longest-running war.
For a Gold Star family, it’s a nightmare that never goes away. And when the pain of losing Kcey Ruiz returns and searing news of that night, Todd-Ruiz said that where she is needed the most.
“That was a heavy, unimaginable experience,” she told Front Runner New Jersey.com about when the news first broke about her stepdaughter. “My job was to be his strength and his protector; to be there for him, to know when to listen and when to speak, to research resources that would help me help him through his grief, and to correspondence and review documents from the military.
“I wanted to carry his weight, when he simply could not, no matter how heavy. His daughter’s loss is a heaviness that he carries with him daily. I continue to exercise care when talking about sensitive topics that may remind him of his loss,” she added.
Ruiz graduated from law school last May and Todd-Ruiz said she couldn’t prouder of him. Helping others is something Todd-Ruiz said she tries to find on the bench while sitting in Vineland Municipal Court, the first woman and the first African-American ever named to the position when was appointed in 2017.
Growing Up in Bridgeton
Todd-Ruiz grew up in Cumberland County, graduating from Bridgeton High School in 1991 before going off to earn her bachelor’s degree from Widener University and the law degree from Rutgers University-Camden.
“I really like being in a position where at times I’m able to use my discretion to help people become better people for themselves and for their community,” Todd-Ruiz said. “If I see someone who is just having a hard time, pain, I’m going to be careful about what I say only because of my position.
“If I’m in a position where I can refer and share resources to members of the public or community that they may not be aware of resources, then that is what I prefer to do when it comes to uplifting. If I could impose a consequence while I am uplifting, then that is the path I choose to take,” she said.
Returning to the area wasn’t exactly what Todd-Ruiz originally had in mind. She gave birth to her daughter, Jade Hunter, and had taken a hiatus from work when Albert Kelly, who at that time had not become Bridgeton’s mayor yet but leading Gateway Community Action Partnership, came calling.
“He contacted me about coming back and working as a grant administrator to oversee a revitalization project in the area of town,” Todd-Ruiz said. “As part of my negotiation, I told him I still wanted to be able to practice law. My capacity with Gateway was non-legal.”
When she returned to Bridgeton, Todd-Ruiz picked up work as a substitute public defender and then became the city’s full-time public defender. She continued to progress into the prosecutor’s office and before long she became the city’s head prosecutor, all the time still working for Kelly at Gateway.
Her work in Bridgeton eventually led to her historic appointment by Vineland Mayor Anthony Fanucci in Vineland to become a judge. She since has added working as a municipal judge in Salem in 2018 and Deptford Township 2019 as well. Todd-Ruiz said she doesn’t focus on being a “first,” but has come to embrace its significance.
“I only thought about it back in 2017 when a former city council member, Latino woman, Sheena Santiago, who impressed upon me the importance of my appointment,” Todd-Ruiz said. “I saw it as simply the next step in my career, so I never looked at it as setting any type of history.
“Now that she brought it to my attention, she wanted to make sure that it was something that was celebrated. I actually owe all of that to Sheena because if it was up to me, I would not have had a swearing in,” she said.
Todd-Ruiz, who lives in Pittsgrove Township, said she has enjoyed being a judge in a community that she grew up. Her father and two sisters live in Bridgeton as her grandmother, who will be 102 in May.
“In five years I’m hoping that I am still on the bench doing what I do right now,” Todd-Ruiz said. “I am satisfied.”
Family remains a huge part of Todd-Ruiz life. Her daughter Jade Hunter is 18 and also celebrates a step-daughter while remembering Kcey Ruiz. Her husband is now preparing to take the bar in July to officially become the second attorney in the family.
“I’m doing what I’m doing simply by God’s grace, keeping me on a path that has led to me to being a judge,” Todd-Ruiz said. “I believe at any time I could’ve made a bad decision or a wrong choice, that would have taken me down a different path. So I don’t consider myself better than anyone else.”
God’s grace has helped Todd-Ruiz to be strong for everyone, whether it’s for herself, her family or her community.
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