When she takes her oath of office on Friday, Maria Ruhl will make history by becoming the only Hispanic circuit court judge in the area.
Ruhl, who immigrated to Miami from Venezuela when she was 3, unseated Circuit Judge Brian Iten during the August primary, marking the end of an era when sitting circuit judges would go unchallenged for re-election.
During an investiture ceremony at 4 p.m. Friday in the Sarasota County Commission Chambers, Ruhl will be sworn in before family, friends and the members of the legal community. Beginning Tuesday, Ruhl will preside over a civil division in Sarasota.
Ruhl will be the only Hispanic judge in the 12th circuit — with no record of any other Hispanic ever holding a seat on the bench.
Chief Judge Charles Williams acknowledged Ruhl being the first Hispanic judge in the 12th Judicial Circuit, which is comprised of Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
“Florida is a very ethnically and culturally diverse state, perhaps the most diverse state in the country,” Williams said in a written statement. “This diversity and inclusiveness is what has made this state great. It is important that our local judiciary reflect this diversity and be equally inclusive.”
“We welcome Judge Maria Ruhl and take pride in the fact that she brings more diversity to the bench along with her outstanding legal qualifications. It is important for all of our institutions to reflect the diversity of our state and nation – the judiciary is no exception.”
Court officials could not say for certain that a Hispanic had never served on the circuit bench prior to Ruhl, claiming it does not track that information. But staff who have been around since the late 1990’s could not recall a Hispanic circuit judge. Similarly, the Florida Division of Election’s online database, which dates back 22 years, shows no Hispanic ever serving.
“It’s not something I set out to do. I wasn’t trying to be the first anything,” Ruhl said.
But as others began to speak of the accomplishment, she became overwhelmed by the significance of her election.
“I was taken aback by that and it made me feel good,” Ruhl said. “I think it’s a positive step for our circuit and definitely for our population, to see the diversity on our bench.”
According to 2018 U.S. Census population estimates, about 16.3 percent of Manatee County’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latin.
But it was much more than career aspirations that got Ruhl to where she is now. It was a deep belief that the democratic process was missing from the selection of local circuit court judges, that drove her campaign.
No sitting circuit judge had been challenged at the polls since 2006. In recent years, the lack of judicial elections became more common place as judges began retiring before the end of their terms, sometimes by a matter of months or days, forcing an appointment by the governor.
Regardless of the outcome, Ruhl said she chose to run to help people understand it was their right to elect judges.
“What touched me the most was, we have a voice and we can be heard,” she said.