Judge Julio Mendez speaks at Hispanic Leadership Association of NJ Gala on Oct. 28.

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

ATLANTIC CITY — Over two decades, Atlantic County Judge Julio Mendez served as a role model for Hispanics throughout the state as the first Latino assignment judge in New Jersey, but he said he wants to make an even bigger impact in his “second act,” working with students at Stockton University.

Mendez was the keynote speaker last month at the Hispanic Leadership Association of New Jersey 10th annual Awards Gala at the Resorts Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Surrounded by students at the event, Mendez said he has always been attracted to getting involved but knew he had to limit his work and comments because of his influential position on the bench.

He retired in February 2022 after a distinguished career as a judge. He is now at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University where he serves as senior contributing analyst. He will produce written analyses and columns examining aspects of important legal issues and current events.

“I’m glad that I got my First Amendment rights back,” Mendez joked in an interview with Front Runner La Prensa during the Awards Gala before he spoke. “For 20 years, I was pretty much incommunicado as judges should be, obviously. Now that I’m back, I want to make a positive impact in the community as much as I can.”

“I love participating in community activities,” Mendez said. “I try to do things that make a difference in people’s lives. I invited some of the students whom I’ve worked with to be part of this event. I look forward to sharing my experiences and inspiring more students and recognizing all the people who are being honored.”

Judge Julio Mendez with Stockton students at the Hispanic Leadership Association of NJ Gala.

Mendez is a Cuban native whose family fled in 1971 to escape the regime of Fidel Castro. His family lived in Spain for two and a half years under the Francisco Franco regime. In 1974, he moved to Vineland during the Nixon administration.

He was inspired to pursue a legal career while a student at Rowan University when he attended a summer course that gave him the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., and sit in during Supreme Court sessions.

“I graduated from high school in 1975 and that was a different time,” Mendez said. “I was fortunate to have people help me along the way and there are trailblazers who we stand on the shoulders of today. All of the people we are honoring today are trailblazers and there will be new ones.”

Mendez said he hopes his career on the bench was an example of a jurist who worked hard for all the people of Atlantic County who made well-researched, informed decisions that will stand the test of time.

He was sworn into the New Jersey Bar in 1981 and worked as a lawyer in Vineland for years before becoming the first Hispanic judge assigned to Cumberland County in 2002. He spent two years in the criminal division before becoming the presiding family law judge.  

In 2011, Mendez became the first Hispanic assignment judge in New Jersey when he was transferred to the Atlantic/Cape May Vicinage.

He served as assignment judge for over a decade before retiring in February 2022.

Crowd at Hispanic Leadership Association of NJ listens to Judge Julio Mendez.

“All I did was work hard every single day and I tried to do the right thing,” Mendez said. “I wanted to do justice and to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Everything else works itself out after that.”

Mendez said while he could have opted to work for a big law firm with his experience and influence as a former judge, he said he was more interested with his current work with students at Stockton.

“I just wanted to do something that would benefit someone’s life,” Mendez said. “This is what I’ve wanted to do all of my life and I do it with a great deal of humility and with the values I learned from my parents.”

Following retirement, Mendez traveled to Spain to embark on a 130-mile pilgrimage across El Camino de Santiago, St James’ Way.

Over the years, Judge Mendez has been a champion for equality and diversity in the legal system, and he has done so by promoting and honoring his Hispanic heritage.

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