A historic appointment in the New Jersey court system represents the one word most firmly connected with what the judicial system strives to be.
The word is fairness, and it is one of the reasons why CSUN alumna Judge Sheila A. Venable ’78 (Political Science) believes it is important to have a bench that is more representative of the public it serves.
In November, Venable was appointed assignment judge of Essex vicinage, the largest court vicinage in New Jersey, becoming the first Black judge to hold the position.
“Everyone should have that same opportunity to excel, to follow their dreams and passions. You want to have the same opportunities,” she said. “Everybody brings something important to the table — your background, your history, your experiences. And I think the organization [one works for] is better for it. Somebody said this, and I say this all the time: Diversity is when you ask me to the dance. Inclusion is when you asked me to dance.”
Venable succeeds the now-retired Judge Sallyanne Floria as assignment judge — the chief judicial officer within the vicinage who has absolute responsibility for the administration of all courts therein.
Throughout the country in recent years, there have been newsworthy events taken as signs of progress for female judges of color: In Colorado, where Governor Jared Polis has appointed more Black women judges than his 42 predecessors combined; and in Texas, where 17 members of a group that referred to itself as “Harris County Black Girl Magic” were elected to the bench in 2018. And Venable is another example.
She recognizes the importance of her own achievement, and the duty that comes with it.
“It’s such a great honor and privilege and also responsibility,” Venable said. “Because when you’re the first, you want everyone to say: ‘Yes, she was the right choice for that position,’ and, ‘She was a public servant and good at it.’ I am a public servant, and I also want to open doors for others, show that it can happen — that hope. You can dream about these things, and it can happen.”
Venable has now twice been promoted by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and has also received judicial appointments from two New Jersey governors — a recognition of Venable’s stellar work, integrity and talent.
“Judge Venable’s distinguished career has been marked by excellence, strong leadership, and empathy – qualities that will serve the state’s largest vicinage and the public well,” said New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. “Essex County, and the judiciary as a whole, are fortunate to have such a gifted jurist continue to maintain the highest standards Judge Floria exemplified.”
Venable set her sights high as a young woman. She wanted to become a U.S. Senator and therefore chose to study political science at CSUN after graduating from Simi Valley High School.
Beyond the classroom, she was active at CSUN, which provided a well-rounded experience that she looks back on with fond memories. She was on the track-and-field team, participated in student government and, in 1977, was homecoming queen. She also worked throughout her time at CSUN — at the university as a tutor, in insurance and in retail at the Northridge Fashion Center.
“The school offered so much If you took advantage of what the university had to offer,” Venable said. “I can understand why so many alumni have done well. If you take advantage of it, you’re prepared when you graduate. You know how to work hard. You’re disciplined. That was No. 1, you just keep pressing forward even when you have obstacles. That’s what that school taught me.”
After graduating from CSUN, she went on to Santa Clara University, where she earned her Juris Doctor in 1982.
After working for a short time at a law firm in Palo Alto, she went east to visit some friends and found a new home. There, she began to rise through the judicial system, first as a public defender and a prosecutor. She said a breakthrough moment came in 1993, when she was appointed as a municipal court judge in 1993. All members of the Jersey City City Council and mayor had to say “yes” in order for her to receive the appointment. It was validation of her work and an indication of their confidence in her demeanor and ability.
In 2005, she was appointed Superior Court Judge for Hudson County by Gov. Richard J. Codey, and in 2011 was reappointed by Gov. Chris Christie.
As assignment judge, Venable will ensure the courts are run fairly, smoothly and efficiently. She will continue to oversee criminal, civil, family and chancery cases.
A run for the Senate is no longer the dream. Venable said she is focused on the big job she has now. After that, is retirement. She also is a grandmother.
But looking at the progress she has made, she has hopes for others.
“One day, I hope there will be an African-American woman on the U.S Supreme Court bench,” she said.