The rise and rise of Judge Dipti Vaid Dedhia
Dipti Vaid Dedhia smashed a glass ceiling when she became New Jersey’s first South Asian woman municipal court judge
The graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, N.J. was born in England, but moved with family when she was 2 and has lived more than 20 years in Edison, N.J.
Among her achievements, she has won the most Successful Mediator Award in the Passaic County Superior Court Clerk’s Program, and is certified in deposition skills by the National Institute of Trial Advocacy. She is also a mother of three and is an accomplished writer and entrepreneur as well, among other things working with her sisters on a blog, Runway and Rattles.
The judge shared with SEEMA details of her life in the municipal and the home court.
You grew up in New Jersey, but you were born in England and moved here with your parents. Tell us a little about them and your Indian roots.
I have a rather diverse background. My father is originally from Kenya and my mother is from Aden, which is in Yemen. They both moved out of their countries at young ages and then eventually, my mom ended up in India and my dad ended up in London. They got married and some odd years later, they had me and my two older sisters. After we were born, my dad got a job offer in New York City, so we all moved here. My mom, even though very far from home, feels very strongly about instilling Indian culture and values in all three of us. She made sure we knew how to speak Gujarati, made us go to the temple all the time. We had big Diwali celebrations, Holi celebrations, and had tons of Indian family friends. Now, fast forward 30 years, my sisters and I try to instill the same values in our kids, hoping that we can keep the culture alive in them.
How was it growing up as a South Asian in the U.S.? What was your ‘burden of proof’ to show that you belonged here?
I think that our burden of proof really was to show people that we are valuable, we have a lot to offer and our culture is so rich. Whether it is food or events or fashion, we have so much to offer, just within our culture. Then Indians in general, have such an incredible work ethic. It was very valuable to show the community around us that we worked hard. I also think that Indian people are so valuable because we’re such a welcoming and inclusive community, even with people that aren’t familiar to us. But to be honest, I moved here when I was so young, that I never really felt that burden of having to prove myself. To us, it was just “work hard, and you will deserve to be wherever you end up.”
Many young people don’t know which career path to choose, how was it for you and what made you choose law?
I was like a lot of those young people. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do when I was in high school or college. To be honest, my dream was to be a Bollywood actress. I had the dramatics and the flair for it. I thought I was perfect for Bollywood. But, obviously, my parents did not feel that way. So it was actually my dad, who pushed me to start doing internships with his lawyer friends. So once I got that exposure, I can’t say that I loved it, but I was good at it and I think that’s what sparked my interest. After a lot of internships, and a lot of jobs, I finally found my happy medium because I started doing trial work. That is where I got to expose my little dramatic flair, as well as my knowledge about the law and put those two together. And that’s how I ended up here.
Any regrets about not being in Bollywood? If somebody came and offered you a role would you take it?
With three kids, I would have to think twice about it. But I have always been resolved in myself to say yes to every opportunity. So maybe I would say yes.
As the first female South Asian municipal court judge in New Jersey’s history you’ve paved the path for many that look like us. What does it mean to you and what does it mean for South Asians?
To be very honest, I’m still trying to figure out what it means to me personally. The incredible milestone means so much to the Indian community and more to Indian women. Growing up, I always felt like Indian women had to be submissive, quiet, go with the flow type, and we were never expected to rock the boat or ruffle any feathers. We could be counted on to look down and get the work done. Sometimes I feel like I did meet those expectations. I didn’t speak in a loud voice, usually was very agreeable, even if I didn’t wholeheartedly agree, and I rarely voiced unpopular opinions. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing or if it’s just how I grew up. But despite those traits, I went on to become a successful lawyer and, eventually, the first Indian American municipal judge in the state of New Jersey. So, I hope that young South Asian women look at me and think to themselves, I don’t have to fit any type of mold or any type of stereotype. I can literally just be myself and succeed.
What are the issues that people in office, like you, can address and improve for South Asians?
Right now, we as women are standing at a very large crossroads for women’s rights, with everything going on with Roe v. Wade. Sometimes it feels like, we have no say, or no power to do anything about it, because people who are so out of reach are making those decisions for us. I have thought about this a lot. I think my main goal with this position, is to be more accessible to the community, on how the justice system works, and how it can benefit the community. I think a lot of people get intimidated by courtrooms or they get scared when they’re served with legal papers. It really doesn’t need to be that way. Laws in this state and across the country are made to improve and to help people in difficult situations. My goal is to make available resources for our community so that it’s more easily accessible, especially our young people. It is important that those kids or students know that they can reach out to us.
Speaking of Roe v. Wade, how can the South Asian community, especially those who want to stand up for women’s rights, make their voices heard?
That is the thing, right? People don’t know how to make an impact. They don’t know how to make a change. But I think that what they can do is educate themselves. Whether it be just looking on the internet, or contacting their local representatives. Asking what can I do? How can I make a difference? Where can I voice my opinion about the state that I live in and the decisions that are being made about my life? I think that’s where you start. You have to be educated, you have to know what’s available, you have to know who to contact and all that stuff is available to you. You just have to learn how to how to access it.
What advice would you give to young South Asian women to inspire them to aspire for the ‘never-been-done-before dream?
It’s actually a quote that I heard and that lives in my heart of hearts. ‘You don’t have to fit into a mold that someone else has defined.’ This quote means so much to me, because when I was offered this judgeship, I didn’t think to myself, that most judges I’ve seen are male, they’re white, they’re over the age of 50. That they are politically connected people, none of that crossed my mind. What I did think was that I want a career that fits my life, both personally and professionally. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t right for the job. The question was always, is the job right for me. What I want young South Asian women to forget, is that mold. Stop thinking about what a CEO or a judge or a celebrity, look like. Instead, think, do I want this for myself, because the second you find something that is right for you, that mold will change to be the shape of you.
You have also written articles on various things including child care and a few cardinal rules for visiting newborn babies. What are these and how do you enforce them?
I actually wrote this article, when I had my first baby. I had just had my first baby and my friends and family wanted to visit as soon as I got out of the hospital. And as a new mom, who had just had a major surgery, I was absolutely in no position to host people. It really did feel like the mom’s well being was almost like an afterthought to our visitors. But let me tell you by the third kid, they all knew the rules. If I recall correctly, some of the rules were, don’t kiss the newborn’s face, try to limit clothing as a gift because a newborn is going to grow out of them. One of the main ones to me was don’t overstay your welcome. But yes, by the third baby, everybody was brutally aware of the rules of visiting a newborn.
“Indian people are so valuable because we’re such a welcoming and inclusive community, even with people that aren’t familiar to us.”
“My dream was to be a Bollywood actress. I had the dramatics and the flair for it. I thought I was perfect for Bollywood.”
“I hope that young South Asian women look at me and think to themselves, I don’t have to fit any type of mold or any type of stereotype. I can literally just be myself and succeed.”
“My goal is to make available resources for our community so that it’s more easily accessible, especially our young people. It is important that those kids or students know that they can reach out to us.”