Brooklyn judge from Trinidad and Tobago wants others to experience her American dream
Justice Wavny Toussaint first moved to Brooklyn as an, in her words, awkward, skinny teenager from Trinidad and Tobago who had to wear an eyepatch because of a lazy eye. She didn’t have big plans for her future at the time as she was just trying to get used to her new surroundings.
“My parents moved here because they wanted more opportunity for me and my two sisters,” Justice Toussaint said. “My mom came first and worked in other people’s homes caring for children other than hers so she could get her green card and bring us here too.”
In the summer of 1973, Toussaint moved to Crown Heights into a home her parents had just bought. She enrolled in South Shore High School and eventually City College in Manhattan.
Toussaint never planned to go to college, but said that one day she found an application for a pre-law program at City College. She applied and got in. Afterward, her family offered their encouragement.
“Essentially my sisters said that, ‘you argue with people a lot so you might as well become a lawyer,’” Justice Toussaint said while laughing.
After two years feeling awkward in high school and four more years of the same in college, Toussaint had set her eyes on Howard University School of Law because she expected to feel more at home there.
“Howard was a wonderful experience for me,” Justice Toussaint said. “I was taught by professors who cared and ensured that students who graduated became excellent lawyers. This is where I started meeting my first mentors, who really challenged me.”
After her first year at Howard University, a professor helped Toussaint get an internship with a judge, the Hon. Bruce Wright.
“He was an excellent judge who really knew his stuff and believed that what he was doing was consistent with the Constitution. The NYPD nicknamed him Turn-Him-Loose-Bruce because he released a defendant who had an incident with a police officer and he ruled that there was no basis to set bail. The person had a good job and community ties and he ruled that he believed that he would return to court.”
As an intern, Toussaint did research on motions on issues that came up in trial and became friends with the judge. She said that one day when they were taking official pictures, he made her put on his robes and predicted that she would eventually become a judge herself. She still keeps the photo in her office.
“I wasn’t ready to accept that at the time, but he dropped that nugget into my spirit,” Justice Toussaint said. “He saw something in me that I didn’t even see myself. It wasn’t an immediate change, but once I started practicing I took that with me.”
Toussaint eventually graduated from Howard University cum laude and got a job at the NYC Corporation Counsel’s office. She said she did it because she wanted to represent her community, but she left after she felt she was treated unfairly. She didn’t quite enjoy the experience, but said that she would do it again because she learned a lot from it — mostly patience, but also an appreciation for hearing what people have to say and negotiating with them.
Justice Toussaint left the Corporation Counsel to become an associate at a private firm, and then she eventually managed her own practice before she served as a court attorney and law clerk.
A big turning point in her career happened about 10 years in — someone approached her to become a judge by applying to be appointed by the mayor. She would never have been considered without a political ally, she said. That person died unexpectedly immediately after she submitted her application.
“I had support and suddenly I didn’t,” Toussaint said. “Some people told me to campaign and become an elected judge, but I was working in Manhattan and living in Brooklyn, so they also encouraged me to move to Manhattan. I debated with myself, and I realized that I was from the Caribbean and my people lived in Brooklyn. If I was going to represent my people, I had to do it in Brooklyn.”
Justice Toussaint left her position as a Manhattan court attorney at that point and moved her career to Brooklyn. Immediately she became active in local politics and community groups. By 1999, she ran for judge for the first time and lost.
She explained that after the upset, she went home and found a message from Marty Markowitz, the future borough president, waiting for her on her answering machine. He was a state senator at the time, and even though the two barely knew each other, he explained that he lost his first election as well and encouraged her to try again.
Toussaint ran for Civil Court again in 2002, but this time she successfully became the first Trinidadian-American to be elected to office in New York State. In 2010, then-Judge Toussaint was assigned as an acting Supreme Court justice. In 2014, she was elected as a Kings County Supreme Court Justice.
She has handled many matters from the bench over the years. Starting in 2003, she sat in Criminal Court, in May 2005 she moved to Family Court, in 2008 she was moved to Civil Court and then she came back to Family Court in 2010. As an acting Supreme Court Justice, she presided over civil trials with a general civil inventory of approximately 1,000 matters. In 2012, she began hearing foreclosure cases.
“It makes such a big difference for me knowing that I can make a difference in people’s lives,” Justice Toussaint said. “I can help resolve issues that they could not resolve themselves.
“I remember early in my career I was trying a case and there was an elderly black woman on the jury,” she continued. “Whenever I looked over at her, she gave me the biggest smile. Afterward, when I was speaking with the jurors, she said to me, ‘You know, you may not have noticed, but I was smiling all of the time because it is so wonderful to see this young black woman sitting on the bench, when I was growing up that was unheard of.’ You make such a big difference when people see someone they can relate to.”
In 2020, Justice Toussaint was appointed to the Appellate Term for the 2nd, 11th and 13th Judicial Districts. She hears appeals from cases from the Criminal Court, the Civil Court, Small Claims and Housing courts. It was a job she applied for, but didn’t think she would get.
“I didn’t do any politicking or anything, but apparently there are enough people that respect the work that I do and think I’m a good job that I got it. It’s good to know that there was support in the community for my elevation to the Appellate Term,” she said.
Justice Toussaint explained that her success means that she has a responsibility to help others, which is why she remains active in her community. She regularly attends the Beulah Church of the Nazarene, where she has organized the Beulah Scholarship Committee that distributes five $1,000 annual scholarships.
She also serves as the board chairperson of Hope City Empowerment Center Inc., a church-affiliated community outreach not-for-profit corporation that operates a senior program. Hope City’s food pantry serves more than 13,000 families annually.
From 1999 until 2013, she was a trustee at Eastern Nazarene College and served as secretary of the board and vice chair of the academic committee. She volunteers with the Legal Outreach College Preparatory program that mentors high school students, and for 12 years, from 1993 until 2005, she served as a board member and chairperson of the Protestant Board of Guardians Inc., a social service organization which provided family preservation and foster care services to the Central Brooklyn community.
“The duty to share with others the benefits of the American Dream with which I as an immigrant have been blessed fuels much of my community involvement,” said Justice Toussaint.
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