A Girl in the Boys Club: Judge Stefanie Martinez, BC ’93

Judge Stefanie Martinez, BC ’93, is living in a man’s world.

According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center that was published on Oct. 13, 2016, there are only six court districts out of the 94 in the United States that have never had a female judge. When she was appointed in 2013, Martinez was the first Hispanic judge in Nebraska and the first female judge in her district. She’s paving the way for others to follow suit, something that she has already seen in practice, as another female judge was appointed in her district in September. Some see it as a step in the right direction. Martinez sees it as coming too late.

“It was about time,” she said.

Martinez works in the second Judicial District in Nebraska, a region just outside of Omaha. Martinez considers it to be a metropolitan area, but it lacks some of the progressive characteristics that most cities have in common.

Martinez has managed to break through the glass ceiling and onto the bench, but her time in the courts hasn’t been all smooth sailing. She feels that she and her female colleague have not been treated the same as their male counterparts. For example, her colleague once shared with her that she had been with male colleagues as they whispered about their lunch plans in an attempt to exclude the women in the office.

“It’s horrific to me that that’s the culture that we’re dealing with in this day and age,” Martinez said.

Martinez has made it her personal mission to pull other women up into the stations and statuses that she has been able to enter. She looks to the very basic level for people to help: high school debate teams and law school students. She encourages students to reach out to her for anything she can help them with. Her community-oriented spirit is nothing new—she first cultivated her passion for public service while at Boston College.

She was part of the PULSE program, which combines learning in the classroom with community service in the Boston area. Her placement with the Big Sister program cultivated her compassion, her listening skills, and the creativity to address problems that she has used throughout her career. It was this kind of education, centered in more than just acquiring the basic skills necessary to graduate and get a job, that attracted Martinez to BC in the first place.

Raised in New Jersey by a Cuban father and an Italian mother, Martinez was introduced to religion at a very young age. As she looked for colleges, she wanted to go somewhere that supported and maintained those values that her parents had instilled in her.

Both of her parents had received religious educations: Her father attended the University of Scranton, and her mother was raised going to Catholic schools and earned her degree from Marywood College.

“The Jesuit experience was something that my parents had had,” Martinez said. “They thought very highly of it, and I fell in love with BC the minute that I went there.”

Although Martinez didn’t know what she wanted to major in when she was applying to colleges, she always knew that she wanted to be a lawyer. In high school, she had a history teacher who was enrolled in Seton Hall Law School. The teacher would tell them about the interesting cases she was learning about every morning in class, and it fascinated Martinez. It wasn’t until she had an internship with Bronx County Supreme Court justice Patricia Williams that she knew that she wanted to find her way to the bench.

After attending New York Law School, Martinez decided she wanted to try to go far away from home and see something new. When a friend from law school told her he had connections in Nebraska, she moved. One husband, four kids, and 20 years later, Martinez is still loving the Midwestern values and atmosphere Nebraska offers that feel so similar to how she was raised on the East Coast.

Martinez started her career at a family law firm before becoming a public defender. When she first moved to Nebraska, she spoke with someone at Creighton University’s career development office. Since it was a Jesuit school, they had the resources to connect her to the local Sacred Heart parish, where she met a woman that introduced her to to a job at the public defender’s office. Martinez stresses that everything that she’s been able to do has come from being open to taking advantage of every opportunity that has presented itself to her. Most of the people that she met and networked with were individuals that she just happened upon through exploring her new city and its judicial system.

Without her mentors, Martinez says, she would not be in the position that she is right now. Without even realizing it, she became a mentor to other people. She recently spoke to someone that she had met years ago, when the girl was a high school student and Martinez was a public defender. Martinez had let the girl shadow her and put her in touch with a judge that she knew. That girl told Martinez that it was the experience she had that day that inspired her to go to law school.

“Sometimes you don’t even know that you’re being a mentor,” Martinez said. “Just offering your time and consideration to somebody might be enough.”

Although she gets joy from being able to provide younger people with the guidance that she was afforded by her mentors, successfully residing over a case involving children is the most rewarding part of her job. It’s very emotionally taxing, but if she can resolve a familial interest so that a child is leaving with two loving parents and a stable home, she’s happy, she says. It’s the cases where the damage has already been done to the child that are hardest to leave at the office.

Martinez explained that in the case of abuse or human trafficking, even if you make a decision that pleases everyone, you can never change what happened to an innocent child.

She’s committed to getting more women and minorities into the office and making it a positive space for everyone to work in. She believes the best way to do that is talking to her female colleague and having an open dialogue with their male counterparts to express how she perceives their behavior toward the two of them. She doesn’t want to leave and go somewhere more liberal, and possibly more accepting. She knows that every place has its own problems, even if it can sometimes feel overwhelming where she is.

With continued mentorship, and pushing for women in every field, Martinez won’t be lonely in law for long. But for now, all she can do is hold her ground and push other women to succeed.

“There’s a boys club—and there’s me,” she said.

Photo Courtesy of Nebraska Judicial Branch

March 18, 2018