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Justice ShawnDya Simpson announces her retirement following Alzheimer’s diagnosis

August 11, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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Justice ShawnDya Simpson, who is in her mid-50s, announced on Monday that she will be retiring as a New York State Supreme Court justice this October after it was determined that she has Alzheimer’s disease.

Justice Simpson, who was born in Panama, was one of the youngest judges ever to be elected in New York City when she won her Civil Court spot in 2003. She then transferred to the Criminal Court, where she presided over misdemeanor cases and felony arraignments and was successfully re-elected to the spot in 2013. In 2016, she was elected to the Kings County Supreme Court.

At just 38 years old when she joined the bench, Justice Simpson was already quite accomplished, as she worked for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office from 1991 until 2003. While there, she worked her way up to bureau chief of the felony trial unit that prosecuted homicides, sexual offenses, robberies, burglaries, assaults, narcotics and firearm possession.

“I came from a ZIP code that doesn’t often spawn the kind of life, family and career I have been blessed to enjoy,” Simpson said in a statement. “My life has been a little Black girl’s American dream. Whoever thought a little Black girl from the projects and raised by a single mother would have an opportunity to sit on the bench and balance the scales of justice?

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“I have thoroughly enjoyed serving as a judge for the past 16 years,” she continued. “I have devoted my entire career to public service and holding the revered position of a judge was my childhood dream come true … I expected this announcement to come much later in my life and career, but it is not God’s will or plan.”

Judge Simpson, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, called her 2016 decision to overturn the guilty verdict against John Dwayne Bunn, who was convicted in 1991 of a killing based on tainted evidence, one of the cases she was most proud of. She recalled seeing the tears running down his face after he was released from prison after 17 years. He was just 14 when he was convicted.

Justice ShawnDya Simpson, right, with Hon. Cheryl Chambers, left, and Lance Ogiste.

Shortly after that trial, Hon. Matthew D’Emic, the administrative judge of the Supreme Court, Criminal Term, and her boss at the time, said that the high-profile case showed how well Justice Simpson was able to handle pressure with humor and grace.

The retirement announcement is part of a stipulation agreement with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The Commission said that it received complaints about Justice Simpson in October 2019 that her demeanor toward litigants, lawyers and others had become erratic, and that she was frequently absent from or late to court.

During its investigation, the commission learned that Judge Simpson had been out since August 2019 with an undisclosed health issue that later turned out to be an advanced stage diagnosis for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Justice Simpson was then served with a former written complaint on March 27, 2020, saying she should retire from judicial office due to a medical disability, and that if she did, the Commission would close its investigation.

Judge Simpson is currently sitting in the Bronx and would have served on the bench until Dec. 31, 2030 had she not retired early.

Justice ShawnDya Simpson, left, with Helene Blank, center, and Hon. Theresa Ciccotto.

“This is as sad a situation as I have encountered in over 40 years of judicial ethics enforcement,” said Robert Tembeckjian, the administrator of the Commission on Judicial Conduct. “The Commission sought to balance its responsibility to ensure public confidence in a capable judiciary with compassion for Judge Simpson and her family over her heartbreaking Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We wish her well in retirement and hope her example makes people more aware of how to recognize and cope with this insidious disease.”

Attorneys from Brooklyn were shocked to hear the news on Monday. Frank Carone, the immediate past president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, called Judge Simpson a great example of success and said the borough would miss her on the bench.

“The litigants of Brooklyn will certainly miss the reasoned intellect of Judge Simpson,” Carone said. “Her accomplishments should serve as a model for children who struggle to believe that they can realize their own life dreams! We wish her well.”

Defense attorney Jay Schwitzman said that he was looking forward to the day that she returned to Brooklyn from the Bronx and that he knew Justice Simpson must be ill because the judge he had worked with for many years would never have received the complaints that she did leading up to the investigation.

Hon. ShawnDya Simpson, left, with Hon. Ellen Spodek, center, and Hon. Carl Landicino, president of the Inns of Court.

“I’m shocked to hear that she has such a serious illness,” Schwitzman said. “She’s such a young person and so smart. I had not appeared before her in a few years, but before she transferred from Brooklyn, she had her faculties, she knew what she was doing and she was a good judge. Every time I had a case in the Bronx I would stop and visit her just to say hello.

“Now to hear that she’s sick, it hurts to hear because she was such an approachable and good judge who never disrespected anyone in the courtroom,” Schwitzman continued. “She treated defendants, litigants and all attorneys with respect.”

Judge Simpson, who taught trial advocacy at Emory University School of Law, was active in the local bar associations, especially the Brooklyn Bar Association, the Nathan R. Sobel Inn of Court and the Kings County Criminal Bar Association.

Prior to her ascension to the Supreme Court and the election of Eric Gonzalez as District Attorney in 2017, Justice Simpson told the Brooklyn Eagle that she was considering running for Kings County District Attorney following the death of Ken Thompson. However, she decided against running in what was a six-person primary race.

“ShawnDya has had a remarkably impactful life on and off the bench and changed the trajectory of lives as a mother, friend, judge, mentor, trustee, board member and community leader,” said friend Jacob Walthour, Jr. “ShawnDya did it all by squeezing extra minutes out of every day. The early, sudden and hollowing effects of her illness need serve as a reminder to us all to live life passionately and with purpose every day.”

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  1. Is there any way the Eagle could pass this on to ShawnDya Simpson? It concerns possible helpful research into Alzheimer’s. My Dad died from Parkinson’s Disease and I’d hate to have Judge Simpson suffer needlessly when researcher MAY be able to help her.