Lunch with supervising judge Keshia Espinal: Collegiality between bench and bar shines through
The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association (BWBA) hosted its latest “Lunch with a Judge” event last Wednesday with Judge Keshia Espinal, supervising judge of the Kings County Criminal Court, who has shattered barriers throughout her incredible legal journey. The event, moderated by Justice Genine Edwards, chair of the Lunch with a Judge Committee, offered a rare peek into Judge Espinal’s life, aspirations, and the influences that shaped her.
Path to New York’s Busiest Court
Judge Espinal’s story isn’t just that of a true New Yorker who practiced in four of the city’s five boroughs. It’s the story of someone who found inspiration in the most personal of places: her mother. As a child, her mother, an interpreter for a defense firm, introduced her to courtrooms. “I remember sitting in the courtroom thinking, I want to do that,” shared Espinal.
A proud alumnus of St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, Espinal’s early days saw her in diverse roles, from a title closer in Long Island to a Spanish interpreter and paralegal for a defense practice in Manhattan. The desire to further her legal prowess led her to Western New England University School of Law, from which she graduated in 2000.
Embarking on her professional journey, Espinal dedicated nearly two decades of her career as an ADA in Queens. A majority of her tenure was as a supervising assistant DA in the domestic violence bureau, where she zealously prosecuted complex and sensitive cases. Her commitment to justice was recognized in 2017 when she ascended to the position of a judge, starting in Criminal Court of the City of New York. Within three years, she had risen to become the supervising judge in Brooklyn, making history as the first woman and first person of color to do so.
Despite her aspirations, the journey wasn’t smooth. Encountering underrepresentation in the legal field and a lack of figures who mirrored her background, she doubted her potential as a judge, until Judge Joseph Zayas saw something in her. His constant encouragement and mentorship paved the path for her remarkable ascent to the bench.
“‘You have the qualifications,’ he said, ‘don’t doubt yourself,’” Espinal recalled. “Being the child of immigrants and not seeing many people who look like me and not even many women on the bench, there were only one or two when I started practicing. To have this male judge say, ‘No, you can do this.’ He rejected my excuses. When I said, ‘well, I’m about to have a baby,’ he kept at me. Thankfully, I listened to him. So being a judge, I thank him for it.”
Empathy at the Forefront
Judge Espinal’s tenure as a supervising assistant DA, primarily dealing with domestic violence cases, instilled in her a deep sense of empathy. Whether as a prosecutor or on the bench, she always strives to see the person beyond the defendant or complainant. This philosophy has played a significant role in her career, ensuring that every individual gets a fair chance, irrespective of their circumstances.
Her upbringing in a diverse community, coupled with her parents’ experiences under the Dominican dictatorship, instilled a strong civic duty. This combination nurtured her inclusive and empathetic approach. Espinal emphasized the importance of respect, listening, and acknowledging the human side of every case.
Taking the helm as the supervising judge during the pandemic was no small feat. Facing personal losses, including her father, alongside the challenges of maintaining a 24/7 operational criminal court during such unprecedented times showcased her resilience and commitment.
Judge Espinal’s rise wasn’t just a personal triumph. Colleagues like Judge Inga O’Neale have hailed her leadership. O’Neale expressed, “It’s comforting to have another woman guiding you… this association is all about giving women a place to come as attorneys, as judges, and help each other professionally with mentorship and guidance.”
Away from the demanding nature of her role, Espinal unwinds with her crafting passions. An amateur photographer and calligrapher, she delights in designing unique gift bags, with a particular emphasis on her daughter’s birthday parties. Her latest venture? Designing mugs using her newly acquired Cricut machine.
The BWBA is hosting a Hispanic Heritage Month event at the Appellate Division, Second, Department, in Brooklyn Heights on Sept. 27 at 1 p.m. The event is titled, “Latinos: Driving Prosperity, Power, and Progress in America” and Hon. Hector LaSalle will present an award to retired justice Hon. Reinaldo Rivera.
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