Women’s Bar Association honors Justice Yvonne Lewis for Black History Month
The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association held its annual Black History Month celebration at the Brooklyn Bar Association building on Thursday, where it honored retired Justice Yvonne Lewis, the first woman of color elected to the Civil Court here in Brooklyn.
“This year we are privileged to honor a pillar of this community — the Hon. Yvonne Lewis,” said Carrie Anne Cavallo, president of the BWBA. “As a young lawyer, I had the opportunity of appearing before Judge Lewis and immediately recognized her patience, understanding and knowledge of the law. It set an early example for me, as these are all attributes which I admire and aspire to have in my profession.”
Justice Lewis was elected to the Civil Court in 1986, elected to the Kings County Supreme Court in 1992 and was re-elected in 2006. In between, she sat on the bench in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s criminal courts.
Prior to her work on the bench, Justice Lewis started her professional career as a teacher in Buffalo and then later as a caseworker in Erie County, New York. She eventually went to the University at Buffalo School of Law and moved to Brooklyn as part of a fellowship that sent her to work for the South Brooklyn Legal Services.
“I met the Hon. Yvonne Lewis around 1987 when I walked into the Civil Court in Brooklyn representing union members,” said Justice Sylvia Hinds-Radix when she was introducing Justice Lewis to the crowd. “I was afraid, unsure and didn’t know what was expected of me.
I walked into the courtroom where, at that time, there were two people of color: Yvonne Lewis and I. That day I got to see the Civil Court in action and to see a judge conduct that court as the people’s court.”
The theme of the BWBA’s Black History Month event this year was “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” so members honored Justice Lewis for being the first woman of color elected to the bench in Brooklyn.
“Throughout her career she has epitomized what is meant to be an individual who paved the way for others, who was always active in the struggle for equality and who knew how to give a voice to those who had no voice,” said Justice Hinds-Radix.
Justice Hinds-Radix joked that Justice Lewis is only technically retired. Then she pointed out that Justice Lewis is still actively involved with the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission for the NY Courts, is a board member of Judicial Friends, a member of many bar associations, including the BWBA, and she’s still active assisting the NAACP.
Before Justice Lewis was presented with an award, she talked about her family, including her great grandfather who was a slave and fought for his own freedom in the Union Army during the Civil War. She also talked about how they moved from Tennessee to Detroit and then Buffalo as part of the Great Migration.
She explained that going to SUNY Geneseo and then law school were life changing events for her.
“Law School enhanced all of my radical senses,” said Justice Lewis. “I became more everything. I became more black, more feminist, I became more anti-establishment.”
Lewis credited Jesse Jackson’s 1983 presidential campaign as a big reason that she got involved politically, even if she admitted to thinking that he didn’t have a great shot to win. But it did get her involved with the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association, and in 1986 Justice Paul Wooten, who then served as council to Assemblymember Al Vann, encouraged her to run for judge.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think so. And I didn’t for a good while, but they persuaded me that it made sense,” Justice Lewis said. “Long story short, I became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Civil Court in Brooklyn. Glass ceiling, bang!”
It wasn’t happily ever after for Justice Lewis at that point. She quickly gained a reputation as a judge with too much empathy for defendants and she said that assistant district attorneys complained about her to the Commission on Judicial Conduct at least five times.
When the DA’s Office began a drug treatment program, they wouldn’t let assistant DAs send defendants there in her part, she said.
“There were about five different complaints,” Lewis recalled. “Looking back I realized that if you are doing what you believe is the best option in the context of the laws that you have to work with, and you are truly doing the right thing, then you’re going to be OK.”
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