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Youngest of Mexican immigrants named to federal bench

By Gheni_Platenburg
Oct. 1, 2011 at 5:01 a.m.

Port Lavaca native and Texas State University graduate Nelva Gonzales Ramos was recently appointed to a federal judgeship on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

For more information about the federal court system, log onto txs.uscourts.gov.

CORPUS CHRISTI - Nelva Gonzales Ramos has moved on up - not to the east side in a deluxe apartment in the sky - but rather to a deluxe, grandiose, office suite on the north side of Corpus Christi overlooking the calming blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

That's just one of the perks Ramos is enjoying as she settles in to her new position as a federal judge in the Corpus Christi Division of the U.S. Southern District of Texas.

"It's very beautiful," said Ramos, 46. "People keep asking me do I get distracted."

President Barack Obama signed off on Ramos' confirmation on Aug. 4.

She was sworn in later that same day at the federal courthouse in Corpus Christi by U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey, of the Victoria Division, allowing her to take on her new duties.

A formal swearing-in ceremony occurred Sept. 22.

"Once we get past that, I can start putting my personal touches on the office," said a soft-spoken Ramos as she leaned back in her oversized, gold-studded, blue, leather office chair situated behind a majestic wood desk. "It doesn't feel cozy or comfortable yet."

The lavish office boasting vast, wooden bookshelves of legal reference books is a far leap from her meager beginnings.

A Port Lavaca native, Ramos grew up the youngest of six children born to parents who immigrated from Mexico and later became U.S. citizens.

With a father who worked as a heavy equipment operator and a mother who was a housewife, there was not much money for activities outside the home other than school.

Growing up, Ramos kept herself occupied by playing outside with friends, reading and daydreaming of becoming a teacher.

"(Teachers) were who you were exposed to when you were a kid," said Ramos. "They were great role models and examples."

Although Ramos' parents and siblings did not attend college they impressed upon Ramos to obtain a higher education.

"We all were fortunate to land good jobs without a degree, but we all agreed that a college degree was important," said Ramos' sister Lydia Cruz. "We told her that she could go find a good job, but a college degree would open up more doors."

Taking her family's words to heart, Ramos attended Southwest Texas State University after graduation from Calhoun County High School in 1983.

She soon graduated with a bachelor's degree in education.

Despite her previous desire to become a teacher and a successful stint at student teaching, after graduation, Ramos found herself questioning whether she truly wanted to pursue a career in teaching.

Capitalizing on an underlying interest in the law, Ramos enrolled in legal assistance classes at her college alma mater before enrolling and eventually graduating from the University of Texas law school.

"Once I got into law school, there was never a time I thought I didn't want to do this," she said.

Following her graduation in 1991 from law school, Ramos landed a job with the Corpus Christi law firm Meredith, Donnell and Abernathy, where she mainly did civil defense work.

"I got a good base that has served me well," she said.

Afterward, Ramos served as a municipal court judge for the City of Corpus Christi before being elected the 347th District Judge in 2000.

She took the bench in 2001 and was subsequently re-elected in 2004 and 2008.

During her 10-plus years of service, Ramos worked to establish more oversight on domestic abuse offenders in addition to presiding over countless civil and criminal cases.

When asked about the more memorable cases of her judgeship, Ramos pinpointed the cases of a murdered U.S. Coast Guard officer as well as the 2007 case of Scott Ryan Helgerson, the 19-year-old who was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the vehicular manslaughter deaths of three siblings.

"It was very emotional," said Ramos. "The defendant was really young, but on the other side, a family was destroyed."

For Ramos, the job also proved emotionally tough at times.

"You preside over the case, but you can't portray your emotions or feelings," she said. "A lot of sadness comes with being a judge because of the nature of the cases, but there are bright spots that come from getting someone in treatment or reconnecting families. It's very fulfilling."

November 2009 brought news that U.S. District Judge Hayden Head, of the Corpus Christi Division, would be entering senior status, creating a vacancy.

Not one to shy away from an opportunity, Ramos applied for the position right away.

"It was an opportunity to remain in the same line of work but handle some other kinds of cases, and I wouldn't have to run for re-election every four years," Ramos, who was up for re-election in 2012, chuckled. "It seemed like something I might enjoy doing."

The road to the judgeship was a long one.

After submitting her application to the Texas Democratic delegation, going through interviews, gaining President Obama's support and going before the U.S. Senate for confirmation, she took over the position in August.

Ramos' investiture ceremony was a memorable moment for the nearly 700 people who attended.

"We are proud of her," Cruz said through tears. "It was a little sad emotionally because we lost our Dad three years ago. He would have been so proud of her."

The ceremony was momentous for Ramos as well.

"It was really nice. It was really special to share the moment with my friends, family, old colleagues and new colleagues."

So far in her new position, Ramos said she has mainly been taking care of administrative duties, familiarizing herself with her new surroundings, and presiding over hearings and pleas.

This week, however, she sat at the head of her first federal criminal trial for drug transportation.

"She's going to do an excellent job here as she did in state court," said Denise Guajardo, Ramos' court coordinator for the past 10 years. "She's very humbled by her success, and her demeanor hasn't changed."

"I've seen her progress. She's matured over the years, and I think she'll be a very good federal court judge," said Rebecca Kieschnick, a partner in the law firm that first hired Ramos. "We're very proud of her. We think she'll do great."

When the married mother of one son is not busy acclimating herself with her new job, Ramos said she can be found somewhere reading or spending time with her family.

"I think I'm where I want to be," said Ramos. "Hopefully, I'll be here for a long time."

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