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Justice Delores Thomas talks COVID, her career and the Brooklyn matrimonial part at Lunch with a Judge

September 14, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association hosted Justice Delores Thomas as its guest during this month’s “Lunch with a Judge” program on Zoom on Thursday.

Justice Thomas has been a judge in Brooklyn for 26 years and currently sits in the matrimonial part in the Kings County Supreme Court. An Alabama native, Justice Thomas graduated from Alabama State University and the University of Georgia Law School.

She started her legal career in earnest after she moved to New York and got a job working for Brooklyn Legal Services, where she worked in the housing, immigration, and unemployment law units.

In 1994, Justice Thomas was appointed to the Housing Court as a judge. She was reappointed to that court in 1999 and was elected to the Civil Court in 2002, the first Black person ever elected to a countywide judgeship in Brooklyn.

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Natoya McGhie, president of the BWBA.

When she was elected to the Supreme Court in 2006, she was asked by Hon. Theodore Jones, then administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court, to sit in the matrimonial part. She has been on that bench since.

“A lot of my colleagues think I’m crazy still sitting in the matrimonial part, but in 2007 when I came over to the Supreme Court, Justice Ted Jones told me that he selected me to do matrimonial because I had the best disposition,” Justice Thomas said. “I had done eight years of Housing Court, which is like a marital relationship. Lo and behold, I liked it.”

Thursday’s meeting lasted about an hour and was meant to give members of the BWBA an insight into Justice Thomas’ career and how her part operates. There was a chance to ask her questions afterward.

“As we enter the fall, we’re still trying to figure out our work schedule, our school schedules,” said Natoya McGhie, president of the BWBA. “There have been a lot of announcements coming out of the courts about how we are going to move forward. We are fortunate to have this opportunity to speak with Justice Thomas because it gives us an opportunity to see how she’s operating during the pandemic.”

Hon. Genine Edwards, a Kings County Supreme Court justice and co-chair of the BWBA’s Lunch with a Judge committee.

Justice Thomas explained that adjusting to more technology has been hard on everyone, but she explained that she has two court attorneys who have “taken [her] kicking and screaming into the technological age” with some success.

Justice Thomas explained that she is in court in person, but she is not holding any trials at the moment and all of her motions are taking place virtually. She is also encouraging everyone, including pro se litigants, to use e-filing.

“My part has not resumed trials because we’re trying to figure out the protocol in how to do virtual trials,” she said. “The virtual appearance is no problem for anything that does not involve a lot of exhibits, but in the matrimonial cases there are hundreds of exhibits that come into play. We’re not sure how we’re going to handle that virtually.”

The judge had advice for younger attorneys in the audience and strongly suggested that they find mentors when possible. She also recommended that lawyers watch a trial in person before they handle similar cases so they know what to expect, though she admitted that this might be hard during the pandemic.

Lunch with a Judge gives lawyers an opportunity to get to know judges, understand their courts, and ask them questions in a relaxed setting with usually only a few dozen participants.

The judge eventually spoke about her own life and how she was influenced by the civil rights era and Jim Crow laws. She explained how it all instilled in her a deep sense of justice.

“Our job is to do justice in the best way we can do it,” Justice Thomas said. “We have to uphold the rule of law even if there is chaos all around us. That becomes crucial in this day and time.

“I grew up in Alabama,” she continued. “When I was growing up there were two people — white and black. There was still Jim Crow going on and there were signs that restricted where people could go. My character was forged in the civil rights movement. I participated in mass meetings, poll watching and it breaks my heart to live in the 21st century and to see injustice still going on.”

Lunch with a Judge is a regular event that the BWBA hosts each month. In August, it featured Judge Heela Capell, who sits in the Kings County Housing Court. Next month the guest will be Hon. Alan Scheinkman, the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department. The event will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 1 p.m. on Zoom.

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