Mexican-American Judge Teresa Sarmina immortalized at Philly City Hall
Judge Sarmina’s portrait unveiling took place in a Ceremonial Courtroom, where she was accompanied by family, friends, and colleagues, new and old.
In the storied walls of Philadelphia City Hall now hangs a portrait of Honorable Teresa Sarmina, a Mexican-American judge who served in the city’s judicial system for decades and whose name now resides among the Hispanic legal caliber in Pennsylvania.
Judge Sarmina’s portrait unveiling happened on a Friday, and guests were due, promptly, at 4:30 p.m., “in keeping with Judge Sarmina's legacy of starting on time,” an invitation email read.
Present to guide the proceedings were judges of Philadelphia’s District courts – including Hon. Idee C. Fox, who proffered the introductory remarks, Hon. Jimmy V. Reyna, Hon. Annette M. Rizzo, and Hon. Ramy I. Djerassi.
The presiding judges sat at the rear center of the room from a bench as if the afternoon’s festivities were no different from a hearing.
After Hon. Fox set the scene for those in attendance, Reverend Luis Cortés, Jr, founder and CEO of Esperanza delivered the invocation. Rev. Cortés has had some practice.
Just a few weeks before, he’d blessed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Jacqueline Romero, during her investiture. Romero’s appointment is considered a landmark appointment for the commonwealth as the first female attorney to be tapped and unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
Rev. Cortés had previously delivered invocations for former presidents George W. Bush, in 2005, and Barack Obama, in 2013.
A lively pastor, Rev. Cortés engaged with Judge Sarmina’s guests in a sort of call-and-response routine before beginning prayer. “Good morning!” Rev. Cortés called out a few times before starting.
“We are grateful for her being a role model for our community,” Rev. Cortés said. “She is a reminder of how humble beginnings can be overcome when family and friends join us in perseverance.”
Before embarking on a successful legal career, Judge Sarmina worked in local government as the Director of Children and Family Services in Illinois. She went on to law school because it seemed like the natural career path since she had forged a resume in policy and government.
Her foray into the legal profession led her to meet and work for Latino stalwarts in the legal and policy space. She first met New York Congressman Robert García, for whom she did a brief stint as a legislative assistant.
Through García, Judge Sarmina went on to clerk for Hon. Nelson Díaz, who, at the time, had been the youngest judicial appointee, as well as the first Latino judge in Pennsylvania history.
Hon. Díaz was just recently elected as judge for the Court of Common Pleas, the same court that Judge Sarmina would later preside over in 1997. Judge Sarmina’s clerkship pairing almost felt like the work of fate, where Hispanic Judges formed and prepared the city’s next generation of legal safeguards.
Following her clerkship, Judge Sarmina, then an ambitious and unstoppable attorney, dedicated herself to public duty, a career track she pursued until she was ultimately appointed to the bench.
When her clerkship with Díaz ended, Judge Sarmina worked as Assistant District Attorney for the city. Speakers and old colleagues soundly recalled a lawyer who had a thirst for justice and the rule of law and whose voice often echoed in court halls.
And many were present to hear those stories.
In the west wing of the ceremonial hall, Judge Sarmina’s family sat in the jury box, many of whom crossed state lines to join her. And directly across were former clerks and colleagues who saw firsthand how Judge Sarmina expected legal business to be conducted.
“It is truly a high honor to witness this occasion as a friend and colleague of one of the great judges of our commonwealth,” one presiding judge said. “Gutsy, smart, hardworking, professional, and yes, opinionated,” he continued.
Judge Sarmina had a reputation. To be on time was to be late.
And if a party was actually late, she expected a detailed account that would explain the tardiness.
“A great friend to some, a pain in the ass to others,” a former clerk said. But her demanding approach shaped her court, inviting a high caliber of public defenders to participate in the city’s business.
It is recorded that she “devised a system that would increase the likelihood that those court-appointed counsel were of higher caliber than existed at the time.”
And beyond the court, Judge Sarmina’s methods were admirable efforts that served as lessons for younger lawyers.
“I feel like I’ve been chasing Teresa for a long part of my life,” said Alba E. Martínez, an attorney, community leader in North Philly, and Artistic Director for La Guagua 47, a community arts project.
When the time came for Judge Sarmina to offer her remarks, she began with a quip.
“I am particularly delighted to have the good fortune to have this celebration while I am alive,” she said. “Alive is always better.”
Many gathered to witness a landmark moment for Philadelphia’s courts, but to Judge Sarmina, it was less so about her.
“Most of what I have to say today is not about me. It is really about all of you.”
A considerable amount of her prepared speech was dedicated to those who shaped the Judge they celebrated that day.
“There’s too much to say and not enough time allotted for it, and I did not do the allotting. I will refrain from hugging each of you as I would love to do,” Judge Sarmina said.
And in the spirit of full-fledged honesty, Judge Sarmina thanked, tearfully, one of the members of her family.
“I always get a little teary for this part,” said Judge Sarmina before addressing her niece, Lisa.
“While I was not there at your birth, we have had a very close relationship ever since (...) When I was back in this very courtroom in 1997, when I was thanking a number of people, I totally failed to even name you, and to thank you for even coming to Philadelphia, running all over the city with me as I struggled to succeed to win that election,” she continued.
Though Judge Sarmina was ultimately appointed to the bench, with her speech, she “can finally put that guilt to rest.”
Judge Sarmina’s niece had taken a red-eye flight to make the ceremony, and would be leaving the next day.
In addition, Judge Sarmina also thanked many of the assistants she hired over the years, many of whom were present, front row, and emotional. She had touched on the lives of folks who either appeared before her or worked with her.
Judge Sarmina’s portrait was painted by artist Sir Roland Richardson, who, in depicting Judge Sarmina, sought to capture her stoicism and humanity, and many of the portrait’s details are hints of her story, whether apparent to the public or just to some.