BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Newly appointed Chief Municipal Court Judge Wilfredo Benitez is a little embarrassed by the attention he has been getting. He understands that he will be the first Hispanic appointed to the Bloomfield Municipal Court, but he just wants to get to work. He sees himself as a public servant, but one who has a special empathy for the defendants before him. He will be replacing Judge John Paparazzo, whose term has expired.
“I understand the stress people have,” Benitez said in a recent telephone interview. “I grew up dirt poor in Harlem. My mother raised four boys.”
He said he “got myself out of the situation with education,” attending Columbia University and Rutgers Law School. His understanding of the importance of education began early.
“I knew I had to be good in school,” he said. “I remember in third grade I wanted to be the teacher’s pet.”
Two areas of the justice system of special importance to Benitez are domestic violence, of which he said his mother was a victim, and school truancy. He said he hopes to visit Bloomfield schools and get to know students and parents.
“I can never understand why kids don’t go to school,” he said. “If you dig deep, you’ll find that they are being bullied or there are problems at home — it’s never easy. There may be some real issues.”
Benitez said parents whose children continually miss school can be brought to court on a disorderly person charge. He has had some parents before him that were so indifferent to their children going to school that he sometimes wanted to sentence them to jail. But what he has done is speak with the children, with the parents’ permission, in the judge’s chambers. He will try to find out why they are not going to school and will even assign the student an essay on a notable personage.
“The satisfaction you get is overwhelming when you get a kid back on track,” he said. “The thing about being a judge is what you can do and sometimes it is as simple as the way to speak to someone.”
Benitez does not believe in stereotypes but likes to experience a defendant’s demeanor. He knows that sometimes they are just plain scared.
“I’m really big on that you are innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “I encourage the prosecutor to prove their case.”
He admits sometimes to looking back on a case and thinking that he could have spoken to the defendant a little more respectfully. But Benitez, who was first appointed to the bench in 2012 in East Orange, feels that today he is definitely a better judge than when he started. Part of that is because he knows how to handle court matters more efficiently. But he does not take all the credit for the improvement.
“Judges don’t run the courts,” he said. “They are only as good as their administrators. I’m going to rely on the people running the court — my staff.”
An understanding of how a court should run is invaluable to a judge, according to Benitez.
“I had the good fortune to work for a big firm,” he said. “But what prepared me was being a public defender in East Orange. I had a decent understanding of the working of a court.”
He feels fortunate in another way, too. This is in light of the recent hurricane that devastated his homeland of Puerto Rico.
“I have cousins, uncles, aunts, tons of family in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I wake up every day and say I’m blessed to get up. I have nothing to complain about. I’m trying to stay healthy and be a good person.”
His inspiration, he said, has been his mother. And growing up in Spanish Harlem, if the other kids made fun of him because his skin was darker than theirs, he would remind them that he was truly born in Puerto Rico.