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Borough President Eric Adams invites Brooklyn to meet the judges

November 4, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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Most people never get a chance to meet judges unless they appear before them in court, but Borough President Eric Adams wanted to give Brooklynites an opportunity to meet them and ask them questions in a more relaxed atmosphere.

That’s why he hosted a “Meet the Judges” event at Borough Hall on Wednesday night where he invited 10 judges and over 100 members of the local community to come together in a more relaxed atmosphere so that the judges could help demystify the system.

For three hours, 10 judges talked about what they do and how their courts operate, and took questions from anyone who wanted to ask.

Brooklyn judges pictured from left: Hon. Cenceria Edwards, Hon. Dena Douglas, Hon. Cheryl Gonzales, Hon. Lisa Ottley, Hon. Craig Walker, Hon. Theresa Ciccotto, Hon. Robin Sheares, Hon. Deborah Dowling, Hon. Lorna McAllister, Hon. Harriet Thompson, Hon. Carolyn Wade and Hon. Ingrid Joseph.

“Walking into a courtroom can be extremely intimidating,” Adams said. “Folks are really concerned about how we administer justice. I have interacted with these judges a number of times and they are authentic about ensuring that the scales of justice are equal. Don’t leave here wondering. Ask the questions that you want to.”

Justice Robin Sheares, an acting justice of the Supreme Court, Civil Term, helped to organize the event and served as the co-moderator along with Judge Cheryl Gonzales, supervising judge of the Housing Court.

The judges who sat on the panel included Hon. Deborah Dowling, from the Supreme Court, Criminal Term; Hon. Harriet Thompson, a judge of the Surrogate’s Court; Hon. Dena Douglas, acting justice of the Supreme Court, Criminal Term; Hon. Lorna McAllister, from the Civil Court; Hon. Theresa Ciccotto, who sits on the Matrimonial Part of the Supreme Court, Civil Term; Hon. Lisa Ottley, who sits in the Guardianship Part of the Supreme Court, Civil Term; Hon. Craig Walker, acting justice of the Supreme Court, Criminal Term, who presides over the Youth Part that includes 16 and 17-year-olds since the Raise the Age legislation was passed; and Hon. Carolyn Wade, acting justice of the Supreme Court, Civil Term, who sits in the Mental Hygiene Part.

Hon. Robin Sheares (right) and Hon. Cheryl Gonzales, supervising judge of the Housing Court, served as moderators for the event.

For the first hour of the event, the judges discussed which court they sit in, how that court operates, and what, specifically, they do in court. They also discussed a bit about their personal philosophies.

“I try to make a difference and I try to make sure that justice is served, not only for the person accused of the crime, but the person who the crime has been committed against as well,” said Justice Dowling. “I’m always walking that balance, trying to do justice for both, because both sides are entitled to justice. No one is entitled to special treatment, but everyone is entitled to people treatment.”

Many of the judges talked about trends they see in their court and suggested steps that people should take to avoid a lot of the problems they see. Judge Ottley and Judge Thompson, who sit in the Guardianship Part and Surrogate’s Court, respectively, both warned that simple things like filling out health-care proxies, having a family member with power of attorney and keeping an updated will and testament can go a long way to avoiding issues they often see.

Zaki Smith asks the judges how they feel about collateral damage from the justice system and about ways he can help to prevent it.

Judge Douglas talked a bit about bail reform that will be enacted in the state on Jan.1, 2020, and suggested that people should try to understand the changes being made to take best advantage of the resources available to them.

“What the legislature has done is to empower the community to have the opportunity to have various forms of bail,” Douglas said. “If you can show that they can come home, there is a stable environment, there are more resources available to people than there were ever before.”

Among the subjects that were discussed was how and why judges are appointed to certain courts and why the judges think it’s important. Justice Dowling said it is important for her to sit in the Criminal Term because she feels strongly about representation and having judges who can relate to people and communities.

Hon. Craig Walker.

Justice Walker, who was elected to Civil Court, has only ever served in the Criminal Court. He said at first it was because of a need in the court system, but then he decided he wanted to stay there because, at the time, he was the only black male judge in Criminal Court. Since being promoted to acting Supreme Court judge, he’s the only black male judge in the Criminal Term there.

“It’s not the only reason I chose to stay there,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in alternatives to incarceration. It’s very easy to lock someone up, but if you haven’t dealt with the underlying issue, the underlying problem, I tell the defense attorneys that they’ll have a client for life.”

Justice Walker explained that when he does arraignments in which people appear before him for the 10th, 20th or 30th time, he often tries to think of how their life was impacted early on so that he can bring that information with him when he deals with the 13, 14 and 15-year-olds who are appearing in court for the first time.

“We have a variety of programs that we work with that look at a person’s economic and mental health and we put that together to create a program to try to turn their lives around,” Justice Walker said. “At the end of the day, once their case is finished with me, I want to ensure that they’re not coming back.”

One of the themes that emerged is that it’s important to know who the judges are because they end up having a big impact on each other. Judge McAllister clerked for Justice Sheares, who clerked for Justice Dowling. Judge Douglas said that Justice Dowling impacted her career from the days she was an assistant district attorney, and that continued when she became a judge and did things similarly to the way she saw Justice Dowling do them.

The question-and-answer session lasted about two and a half hours and it probably would have gone on longer if more people had attended because the judges were eager to speak with anyone.

The event was scheduled to last until 9 p.m., but the time was extended so that the judges could hear from anyone who wanted to ask them a question.

Many different types of people came with questions, from social workers to attorneys to court employees to people who had had bad experiences in the court in the past to people who were simply curious.

The judges couldn’t answer every question, but in most cases, they were able to help shed light on the situation or direct them to the appropriate programs or groups. In one case, Judge Thompson said, “You need to come see me in Surrogate’s Court first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Folks don’t like coming to court,” said Judge Ciccotto. “It’s like going to the doctor’s office. I hope that this has helped to demystify the system. If you get a notice, come to court. There are so many programs that will help you. It doesn’t mean you are going to suffer. We’re here to help you. You elected us to promote and protect your interests, and that’s what we try to do. Court is not a bad place.”

Hon. Dena Douglas.

The event was organized with the help of Brianna Suggs, special liaison to the Borough President’s Office and Justice Sheares. It was co-sponsored by Church Women United in Brooklyn. The attendees included members of local community groups and anyone who saw the event advertised by the borough president.

The Borough President’s Office said that since the turnout was so positive, it hoped to organize similar events in the future.

Sitting from left: Hon. Dena Douglas, Hon. Harriet Thompson, Hon. Deborah Dowling, Hon. Lorna McAllister, Hon. Theresa Ciccotto, Hon. Lisa Ottley, Hon. Carolyn Wade and Hon. Craig Walker were all on the panel.

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