New York City’s ranking family court judge Jeanette Ruiz is stepping down this week, following a six-year tenure heading one of the nation’s busiest family courts, most recently through the tumult of a global pandemic.
In an interview Thursday, Ruiz, 69, said she was leaving a year ahead of the court’s mandatory retirement age to “pursue other interests in life” after a “very long career.” She has served the public for decades, beginning as a social worker and later as an executive in New York City’s child welfare agency, before becoming a judge.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the state’s Office of Court Administration said a replacement will be named following an interview process and determination by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks.
Judge Ruiz is departing at an unprecedented time for the city’s court system, which nearly ground to a complete halt when the pandemic struck a year and half ago, and has gradually expanded virtual court hearings ever since.
In the New York City family courts, that has meant limited in-person hearings and proceedings by remote video for a range of clients often facing desperate circumstances — from parents fighting to reunify with their children in foster care, to kids facing delinquency allegations and incarceration.
The pandemic’s effect on the city’s family courts may be irreversible, Ruiz told a reporter, with positive and negative consequences.
“One of the lessons is, there really are people who prefer to appear virtually,” she said. “Not having to take a day off work to come to work and wait all day is huge. A lot of court users with children don’t have to worry about figuring out car fare or child care.”
But she added there are also downsides: “Many people didn’t have Wi-Fi or broadband,” she said, referencing the courts’ efforts to provide that access.
To mitigate the spread of the deadly virus, New York City’s family courts scaled back routine hearings in late March 2020. Remote video appearances were held for some contested matters, including hearings on foster care removals, domestic violence and juvenile detention — issues that Ruiz described as “fundamental liberty interests.”
Judges and limited staff returned to courthouses last June, and in late May of this year, all 16,000 employees of New York State’s Judiciary returned to all courthouses. But in New York City’s family courts, most hearings are still being held virtually, with limited public access.
In July, the city bar association’s Council on Children sent a letter to Ruiz stressing that the family courts face an “unprecedented backlog of cases, including matters in which parents await the return of their children while others wonder when their adoption will be finalized.” The lawyers also called out the need for “a far more urgent, organized and centralized approach” to resuming in-person hearings.
Ruiz did not directly address those concerns in her written response a week later, but described the scope of the challenge for planning post-pandemic appearances. She called it “a significant undertaking that will require a thoughtful and measured approach–keeping in mind the due process rights of the litigants and the operational capacity of our court.”
In an interview this week, Ruiz emphasized that the backlogs have been, and will continue to be, an urgent priority for her office.
Ruiz has led the court system handling child welfare, delinquency and other family-related matters since Judge Marks appointed her administrative judge for New York City’s family courts in 2015.
Prior to that post, she held leadership roles at the Administration for Children’s Services, including as a senior manager in the adoption and child fatality units. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she was promoted to deputy commissioner responsible for oversight of all private foster care agencies, before Bloomberg appointed her as a judge in 2007. She started her career as a caseworker with a private foster care agency.
Ruiz was raised in Sunset Park Brooklyn by Puerto Rican immigrants, earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in New York City, a Master’s Degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.
When asked about her tenure as a family court judge, Ruiz counted the courts’ 2015 strategic plan among the most important initiatives.
But juvenile court hearings were among those that affected her most deeply. She views herself as a judge who took no pleasure in “remanding” children, and described the efforts she took to engage with youth in her courtroom and to discover their interests: some would sing, dance, rap and recite poetry in her courtroom.
“I’d say, ‘I have to put you in detention, I really don’t want to do this. I’m going to see you again in three days, and I want you to give me your best, best, best, argument for why I should release you,” she recalled. “And you’d be shocked how incredibly honest these kids were. I was delighted, and it was precious.”
Ruiz said she believes she served during an era of reform, with the juvenile delinquency rate and the foster care census in dramatic decline, and passage of the 2017 juvenile justice bill known as Raise the Age. She remains optimistic that the reforms will remain in place, even with the recent pandemic-related, society-wide stressors.
“Gun violence is an issue but I can’t imagine we’ll go back to the horrific times before the reforms started,” Ruiz said. “People are suffering and need jobs and housing to have stable families and communities. But I’m very hopeful.”