Esther Salas was 10 when the fire broke out. “Mommy, fire!” she called as smoke filled the Union City apartment where she lived with her mother and two of her four siblings. Little Esther climbed onto the kitchen counter to reach for a box of cat food. Shaking the box, she coaxed her cat out of hiding long enough for her sister, Julie, to grab it. Luckily, the rest of Esther’s family also escaped the blaze.
“We lost everything in that fire,” recalls Salas, now 49. “I helped save the cat, then reached my hand into the closet and grabbed one shoe, then another, and had to get out. That’s how little time we had.”
In the difficult days that followed, Salas did her part to help the family recover. She and her mother waited in line at the welfare office to plead the family’s case—with Esther as translator. “It wasn’t fun; it wasn’t easy,” she says. “I had to really advocate.”
Her pleas proved to be a prologue of what was to come. Salas trained to become an attorney. By age 38, she was selected as New Jersey’s first Latino federal magistrate judge. Five years later, she became the state’s first Latina U.S. District Court judge.
Salas and her siblings were born in California to a Catholic mother, Aurelia Valdivia, who emigrated from Cuba, and a Jewish father, Carlos Salas, from Mexico. Both had come to America in the late 1950s. “Our father gave all of us Jewish first or middle names to go with our Mexican last name,” says Salas. When she was five, Aurelia and Carlos split up; Salas blames the separation on domestic violence. Carlos moved back to Mexico; Aurelia took the children east to live with a brother in Union City.
Aurelia had finally moved her family into their own place when the fire left them homeless. Again, they moved in with her brother’s family—11 people in one small apartment. Eventually, Aurelia saved enough to move her brood to an apartment on 15th Street in Union City. Aurelia worked as a caretaker for children. She cleaned offices at night. She cut fabric in the needlepoint industry. “She never spent the money she earned on herself, and instead she paid bills and saved for rainy days,” says Salas. In time, Aurelia saw all five of her children graduate college. “My mother is the strongest person I have ever met,” Salas says. “Tough as nails, but very respectful.”
From her mother, Salas learned respect, fairness, diligence and love of country. Education was paramount. Salas earned a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and a law degree from Rutgers School of Law. After working for the law firm of Garces and Grabler, she spent close to 10 years as an assistant defender in the federal courts. She served as president of New Jersey’s Hispanic Bar Association from 2001-2002. In 2010, President Barack Obama nominated her for a federal judgeship. The Senate unanimously approved the nomination.
On this Monday in October, the attorneys are waiting for Salas to enter Room 5A of U.S. Federal District Court in Newark. In her chambers, Salas is reading the last-minute paperwork filed on behalf of the defendant, a musician named Mario Winans, about to be sentenced for failure to file tax returns.
Finally, her courtroom deputy, Phillip Selecky, calls out, “All rise,” and in walks Salas, wearing her black judicial robe, three strings of pearls and red suede stilettos by designer Louise et Cie.
“Good morning, everyone,” she says. She admonishes the defense for last-minute filings that cramped her weekend. Her powerful voice fills the room. After two hours of discussion and questioning, Salas is ready with her decision. Moved that the defendant has accepted responsibility for his crime, she spares him prison time, sentencing him instead to five years of probation, five years of financial disclosures to the court and 500 hours of teaching music composition to the Newark Boys Choir.
“You’re very talented,” she tells Winans. “You could help these boys learn your skills.”
In pronouncing the sentence, Salas assures the courtroom that she will be “all over” the defendant to ensure he pays every penny owed to the I.R.S. and thus, “to his country.”
New Jersey’s federal courts are among the nation’s busiest. At any time, Salas presides over as many as 485 civil matters and 50 criminal cases. In one notable case, she received national attention in 2014 for giving jail time and a public scolding to Teresa Giudice after the Real Housewives of New Jersey star and her husband, Joe, pleaded guilty to fraud charges.
Another recent case involved a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer convicted of forcing women to have sex with him. On sentencing day, Salas asks to the shackled defendant, “How could you do this to your country?” The defendant—a father and a U.S. Marine—bows his head, apologizing to his victims.
“Usually defendants say as little as possible or read a prepared statement, since they are preserving their rights—as they are entitled to do,” Salas tells this reporter afterward. “But to apologize to everyone like that? And so thoroughly? It definitely made an impression on me and in turn made me take a few months off his sentence.”
Salas’s half-sister, Sara, a physician in Mexico, attended the sentencing, seeing Esther in action for the first time. “She’s wonderful,” Sara says later. “The way she so carefully considers all sides.” Salas discovered her half-siblings thanks to the background check required when she was appointed a magistrate judge. The investigation located her father, who had become a rabbi, and his new family in Mexico.
Salas lives and breathes her work. Twice per month, she, her colleague Judge Katharine S. Hayden and other court officers sit down for frank conversations with defendants in the Pretrial Opportunity Program (POP). The only program of its kind for federal crimes in New Jersey, and one of just 25 in the nation, POP is an alternative to jail for those who have pleaded guilty to acts they likely would not have committed if they were not drug addicts. Hayden and Salas launched it together; Salas calls it her proudest accomplishment.
“While the state already has programs like it, the significance of having POP in federal court is that federal crimes tend to have much larger drug charges,” says Hayden.
POP, adds Salas, helps reduce recidivism through support networks and personal attention, and by teaching coping skills and accountability. “She’s so kind to people,” Hayden says of Salas. “She’s remarkable.”
Craig Carpentino, who as a federal prosecutor argued cases against Salas when she was a public defender, describes Salas as “always well prepared [and] very well respected.”
Salas met her husband, criminal defense attorney Mark A. Anderl, when he was an assistant prosecutor in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. Salas was a second-year law school intern. “I was literally getting fingerprinted” when Mark came over to talk, she says. “We’ve been inseparable since 1992.”
Their 17-year-old son, Daniel Anderl, a senior in high school, might have law in his future. “I don’t want to dissuade him, but I was pulling for a doctor,” Salas says. “He’s been arguing with us since he could talk—practicing his advocacy skills.” Salas teaches him her mother’s mantra: “Tu no eres mejor que nadie, pero nadie es mejor que tu.” It means you are not better than anyone, but no one is better than you.
“It’s a profound way to live your life—to speak to the janitor with the same respect that you would show to [U.S. Supreme Court Chief] Justice Roberts,” says Salas. “It also means, in the end, you have to be respected too.” She remembers being a little girl when someone in line at ShopRite screamed “Speak English” at her mother, who was addressing Salas in Spanish. Although her mother could speak English, she often found it easier to communicate in her native language. “That was an upsetting day for me,” says Salas, “like those days at the welfare department. Treating my mother with such disrespect.”
For much of Salas’s life, her mother was her best friend and her rock. She fondly remembers Spanish music in the kitchen while Aurelia was preparing traditional Cuban dishes like arroz con pollo or ropa vieja—and especially her perfect flan. “She made it with love.”
Those memories are especially treasured now. Aurelia, 83, suffers from Alzheimer’s. “It’s a cruel disease,” says Salas. It pains Salas that her mother is unable to witness her latest accomplishments. But Salas continues to be guided by her mother’s example.
“Esther really has the perfect judicial temperament,” says Carpentino. “She treats everyone as equal. You know that statue of the lady, blindfolded, holding the scale? That’s her. Esther Salas is Lady Justice personified.”