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William Thompson, Brooklyn’s first black administrative judge, dies at 94

December 26, 2018 By Rob Abruzzese Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Justice William C. Thompson, pictured here at the Brooklyn Bar Association Foundation dinner in 2006, died this week at the age of 94. Among his many accomplishments, the trailblazer will be remembered for his work in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community and for mentorship of young lawyers, judges and politicians. Eagle file photos by Mario Belluomo

Judge William C. Thompson, a decorated World War II veteran, one-time state senator and Brooklyn’s first black administrative judge, has died at 94. His death was first reported on Monday. 

Judge Thompson, a Harlem native who, at the time of his death, had lived on Putnam Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant since 1939, was in the legendary “Buffalo Soldiers” Army division during World War II and received a Purple Heart for his service.

He spoke frequently about how drastically Brooklyn — and especially his neighborhood — changed during the war, and how that change helped drive him into politics.

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In 1965, Thompson was elected to the New York state Senate, where he represented Brooklyn. He held that seat until he was elected to the City Council in 1969, where he served until he was elected to the Supreme Court in 1974. Later that year, he was appointed as an associate Justice of the Appellate Term, 2nd and 11th Districts. While serving in the Appellate Division, he married the late Judge Sybil Hart Kooper, and the two became the first-ever couple to serve together as appellate judges.

Thompson, known by friends and associates as “Willy,” went on to become the Assistant Administrative Judge in charge of the Supreme Court for Brooklyn and Staten Island in 1978, and two years later he was assigned by Gov. Hugh Carey as an Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department.

The Brooklyn Women's Bar Association gave its inaugural Joanne Minsky Cohen Award to Hon. William C. Thompson in 2016. Pictured from left: Joanne Minsky Cohen, then-BWBA President Helene Blank, Hon. William C. Thompson, Hon. Sylvia Hinds-Radix and Hon. Lawrence Knipel.
The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association gave its inaugural Joanne Minsky Cohen Award to Hon. William C. Thompson in 2016. Pictured from left: Joanne Minsky Cohen, then-BWBA President Helene Blank, Hon. William C. Thompson, Hon. Sylvia Hinds-Radix and Hon. Lawrence Knipel.

 

From 1990-1998 he served as a member of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

After losing Kooper to breast cancer in 1991, Thompson became a champion of the fight against the disease, becoming an accomplished fundraiser.


The creation of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation was a particular point of pride for Thompson. He worked on the project with Robert F. Kennedy, developing the country’s first community development corporation.

“What they did was they would come to your block association and say, ‘For $25 I’m going to paint your windows, do your sidewalk and take care of the outside of your house — but the whole block has to agree,’” Thompson told the Brooklyn Eagle in 2015. “That’s what we did. We restored entire blocks, and today you can go past those same blocks and tell that it was a restoration block.”

Judge Thompson was also the chairman of a Joint Legislative Committee on Child Care Needs, which helped pass 25 bills into law. In 2015, he was honored for his work in helping to create the Presidential Leadership Council, a program designed to mentor Brooklyn students involved with their student governments.

The day Thompson was honored for his work with the Presidential Leadership Council, both former Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson and current Borough President Eric Adams were in attendance, and both gave him credit for lending a large hand in shaping their careers.

“Across five decades, Justice Thompson was the embodiment of the principles we expect out of public service,” Adams said in a statement issued on Tuesday. “Our One Brooklyn family will collectively carry Justice Thompson’s torch in the struggle for justice going forward.”

Judge Thompson was known for helping mentor youth, especially young lawyers and judges. When he was given the inaugural Joanne Minsky Cohen Award by the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association in 2016, Justice Sylvia Hinds-Radix introduced him and spoke about what an amazing mentor he was for the legal community.

“I was asked to introduce the first recipient of the Joanne Minsky Cohen Award — or rather I twisted [the BWBA president’s] arm to let me do this,” Justice Hinds-Radix joked at the time. “In addition to his exceptional career, he constantly gives back to his community. He’s always been a mentor for young lawyers and also some of us judges.”

Thompson retired from the bench in 2000, but he hardly stopped working. He helped his son Bill Thompson get elected as the New York City Comptroller in 2002, and he himself became a judicial hearing officer. He was named one of the top 10 mediators in NYS by the New York Law Journal Reader Rankings Survey in 2010, 2011 and 2012.


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