Ana Maria Martinez wants to make her community and little girls proud.
As the first and only Latina trial judge in Georgia, she thinks representation matters when it comes to making sure justice is served. The lack of it is alarming, she says.
“Justice is a function of perception, and when defendants go into a courtroom they want to know that whoever is listening to them understands where they’re coming from,” Martinez recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Martinez was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp in January 2022 to replace Dax López and serve on the DeKalb County State Court. It was not a role she ever expected.
Born in Colombia, Martinez moved to Duluth in 1995 at the age of 12. As a naturally social child, the move was a striking change. She said she came home from school crying every day because she struggled to make friends due to the language barrier. Within three months, Martinez said she was able to speak much more fluently. Atlanta is now a second home, even though she visits Colombia almost every year.
Though Martinez said she never had plans to pursue law, she credits her interest to her Colombian grandfather, Julio Florez, who frequently would take her to see his collection of books in his in-home law library.
Years later, after graduating with a marketing degree from the University of Georgia in 2004 and working for Progressive Insurance, a friend asked her to study with him for the LSAT. She had no plans to take the test herself. But when he said he wasn’t ready, she went ahead and took it. Georgia State College of Law was the only law school she applied to — and she got in.
Martinez found herself working at a civil defense firm after graduating in 2009. Then in 2013, she joined López’s staff. At the time, he was the only Latino State Court judge in Georgia.
Martinez felt she was helping break barriers for women and Latinos in law, but she wanted to do more. In 2015, she founded the Georgia Latino Law Foundation. The goal was to help support Latino law students.
In Georgia, Martinez suspects that Latinos make up only about 1-2% of the Bar Association. There is no way of getting an exact number, she said, because the Georgia Bar stopped asking people to self-identify in the 1970s. She wants to change that, stating: “You measure what you care about.”
Working as a staff attorney and running the foundation allowed Martinez more time to spend with her daughters, who are 6 and 11 years old. Women’s History Month is a reminder to show them that being a woman can be much more than just motherhood.
“I want them to see that they can set their mind to something and accomplish it. And that they can be more than just a mom or a woman, they can be a professional and make a difference in the world,” she said.
A few years into working for López, he pulled her aside one day and said two words: “It’s you.” He wanted Martinez to take over — and she knew he was right. If she was going to keep telling Latino law students to dream big and her own daughters to break barriers, she was going to have to do those two things herself.
State court judges hear misdemeanor criminal cases and traffic offenses, issue search and arrest warrants, hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases and try civil matters that are not exclusive to superiors courts. In Georgia, there are 73 state courts, 133 judges and 61 senior judges.
Through her contributions, Martinez has served as a role model to more than just her children. Judicial Assistant Gricelda Benitez-Reyes was made part of Martinez’s team because of her fluency in Spanish. The El Salvador native looks up to Martinez.
“When I showed you that picture of me when I was a 3-year-old, I said, ‘(Martinez) has become this child’s role model and hero.’ That is really what she is,” Benitez-Reyes said.
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
With a little more than a year on the bench, Martinez said she is most proud of running the only Spanish-speaking DUI court in the state. For her, it’s an opportunity to change people’s lives. The idea is not just to send people to jail, but to give them an opportunity to rehabilitate, sober up and be more involved in their communities.
But while she knows she has provided the resources for other Latinos in the state, she said there is a lack of representation. She thinks having ethnic and gender diversity in law fosters an environment where defendants feel heard.
“It serves to have women in (judge) positions. It helps to have Latinos in those positions,” she said. “Diversity creates a lot of understanding across the board and helps people feel like justice is taking place.”
Benitez-Reyes is just one of many who acknowledge the benefit of having a Latina on the bench. Of having someone who looks like her.
“Back in my country, if I had grown up over there, I probably wouldn’t have had the option to even go to school,” she said. “The fact that (Martinez is) a Latina, the fact that she is a judge, she gives hope for Hispanic women.”