3 Black women judges take bench in Appellate Term for first time in history

May 25, 2022 Jacob Kaye
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For the first time in history, three Black women justices together heard cases in the Appellate Term, Second Department on Wednesday.

Queens Associate Justice Chereé Buggs, Associate Justice Wavny Toussaint and Presiding Justice Michelle Weston, all three of whom are Black women, made history Wednesday, hearing Appellate Term cases together from the bench.

To mark the occasion, the judicial panel was held inside the Appellate Division, Second Department courthouse in Brooklyn Heights, rather than in the Appellate Term’s courthouse on nearby Livingston Street.

In the days leading up to the panel, Buggs, who was elected as a Queens Supreme Court justice in 2016, told the Eagle that she was “extremely excited” to be part of the historic panel.

“I am so amazingly humbled to be part of the first time when there are three African American women who will be presiding in the Second Department,” Buggs said. “I just feel incredibly honored to be part of history in that regard.”

Buggs added that she was heartened to see that the Office of Court Administration’s promise to work to diversify the bench have begun to pay dividends.

“There are, and have been for many years, many well qualified, diverse people to fill various vacancies,” Buggs said. “I’m just very happy to see that there is a concerted effort at this time to ensure that those qualified, diverse people are given an opportunity to serve the people of New York.”

Buggs, who was born and raised in Queens, was first appointed to the Appellate Term bench in January following the retirement of former Justice David Elliot. Upon her appointment by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Buggs became the third African American judge from Queens to serve at the appellate level, and the first from Queens to serve on the Appellate Term.

Prior to her Supreme Court justice election, Buggs served as a judge in Queens County Civil Court and in New York City Family Court. Buggs is also a member of the court system’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics.

Toussaint, who also serves as an elected judge in Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term, became the first Trinidadian American elected judge in New York’s history when she was elected to Kings County Civil Court in 2002.

“This is what makes America great, its inclusivity of all of those who come from whatever place, or those who live here and all those who grew up here,” Toussaint told the Eagle.

The Brooklyn judge celebrated the fact that her inclusion on the historic panel was thanks to the sacrifice of her parents and grandparents, who moved from country to country before settling in the U.S.

“My parents moved here to make a better life and here I am, I’m sitting on this Appellate Court bench,” Toussaint said.

While the historic panel was meaningful to all of the justices, it may have been particularly meaningful to Weston, the longest serving judge in the Appellate Term.

“I feel ecstatic, I feel exuberant – this is history in the making,” Weston said.

Weston was first appointed to the bench in 1989 by then-Mayor Ed Koch. She was elected to the Supreme Court the following year, making her the first Black woman elected in the Second Judicial District.

In 1993, Weston was appointed to the Appellate Term, where she has served ever since. Additionally, Weston, a St. John’s University grad, presides over medical malpractice trials in Kings County Supreme Court. She’s a lifelong Brooklyn resident.

For Weston, one of the most important aspects of the panel was the opportunity for others to see themselves reflected on the bench, the same way she felt when she saw Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed to the country’s highest court.

“There’s a woman that looks just like me – and I’m an accomplished woman – but there’s a woman that experienced what I experienced,” Weston said. “It’s a sense of pride and accomplishment and I think almost every Black woman in the country had that same feeling.”

“I think today people will say, ‘Wow, look at that. I walked into the courtroom and I saw three people that look like me,’” she added.

The historic panel came on the two-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who was choked to death by former police officer Derek Chauvin and whose killing sparked worldwide protests and renewed the conversation about abusive policing in the U.S.

Lucian Chalfen, the spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, said that the fact that the panel met on the anniversary of Floyd’s death was a coincidence.

“Diversity in any institution, especially in the Judiciary, where people come looking for justice or to resolve disputes, reinforces both their perception and the reality that the people who interpret, defend and apply the law, see and understand the world from their perspective,” Chalfen said.

“This is a day that all New Yorkers can be proud of, and to a day when, like other societal barriers that have come down, days like this become commonplace,” he added.

Justices Wavny Toussaint, Michelle Weston and Chereé Buggs made history as the first Appellate Term, Second Department panel made up entirely of Black women jurists in New York history on May 25, 2022. Photo by David Handschuh/UCS

Floyd’s death also sparked a racial reckoning within the courts.

In 2020, amid a summer of racial justice protests, DiFiore commissioned Former United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to conduct a study and make recommendations aimed at identifying and eliminating racial biases rooted in the court system.

A number of those recommendations aim to boost diversity numbers within the courts and combat systemic racism within the court system. Among other recommendations, Johnson encouraged the courts to institute bias training, a zero-tolerance discrimination policy and incorporate an implicit bias training into juror training.

Court leadership has attempted to implement the numerous recommendations made by Johnson in the years since.

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