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John Dios, New Jersey’s first Hispanic judge and a 17-year veteran of the Essex County bench, died on April 21. He was 80.

Born in Havana and partly raised in Spain, Dios studied at Princeton University, Denison University and the University of New Mexico. He graduated from Rutgers Law School-Newark in 1949 and was admitted to the bar the same year.

He practiced law in Newark for 25 years, handling civil and criminal cases for primarily Spanish-speaking clients. He also represented labor unions and worked with government agencies, serving a term as counsel to the Newark Water Authority.

He was active in Hispanic community organizations, including the Hispanic Emergency Council in Newark, which is credited with helping quell the 1967 Newark riots and improving community-government relations. He served as counsel to Club Espana and as chairman of the Essex County Young Democrats.

In 1974, Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson named Dios a Newark municipal court judge. He became an Essex County District Court judge in 1976 and an Essex County Court judge in March 1978. Later that year, he became a Superior Court judge by dint of a constitutional amendment that abolished the county courts. Most of his Superior Court service was in Criminal Part, including a stint as presiding judge. In 1991, soon after he was replaced as presiding criminal judge, he retired at 67.

Retired Judge Charles Villanueva, who once served alongside Dios, calls him “one of the most respected judges in Essex County if not the state.” Dios “disposed of more criminal cases by trial or by plea than any other judge in Essex County,” often trying two in a week, he adds.

That fits with the recollection of Sandy Bograd, who was assigned to Dios’ courtroom while an assistant Essex County prosecutor. At one point, she had three cases going before him – with one jury deliberating across the hallway, one deliberating in Dios’ courtroom and a third hearing opening statements. Bograd, now at AIG in New York, says Dios was demanding and “a tough sentencer” but “people got process in his courtroom. . . . He wanted to be sure that people understood their rights.”

Former judicial colleague and friend Julius Feinberg, who drove to work with him for years, praises Dios’ ability “to make the jury feel they were performing a wonderful public duty.”

Dios was a member of the Supreme Court Task Force on Minority Concerns, the predecessor to today’s standing committee.

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