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Kings County Supreme Court hosts inaugural AAHNPI heritage celebration

May 28, 2024 Robert Abruzzese, Courthouse Editor
The Kings County Supreme Court celebrated AAHNPI Heritage Month with a vibrant event featuring cultural performances and speeches from prominent judges, including keynote speaker Hon. Donald Leo, highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusivity in the judicial system. Pictured from left to right: Jenny Yang, Hon. Shahabuddeen Ally, Sgt. Mary Wudo Wu, Hon. Donald Leo, Hon. Joanne Quinones, and Major Henry Chen. Eagle photos by Robert Abruzzese
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The Kings County Supreme Court celebrated Asian American Hawaiian Native Pacific Islander (AAHNPI) Heritage Month with a vibrant event at 320 Jay St. on Wednesday, May 22. The celebration, organized by the New York State Courts Asian Jade Society and the Second Judicial District Equal Justice Committee, highlighted the diverse cultures and contributions of the AAHNPI community.

The event featured an array of speakers, including Hon. Joanne Quinones, chair of the Second Judicial District Equal Justice Committee, and Hon. Shahabuddeen Ally, president of the Asian American Judges Association of New York. The keynote address was delivered by Hon. Donald Leo, an Acting Supreme Court Justice in the Kings County Supreme Court, Criminal Term.

Co-sponsors included the Asian American Judges Association of New York, the NYS Court Clerks Association, the NYS Court Officers Association, the NYS Supreme Court Officers Association, Judy Mock Law, and the Asian Jewels Restaurant.

“Coming together as a court community to celebrate AAHNPI Heritage Month not only enhances our professional network, but it also promotes diversity, inclusivity, and understanding of individuals with different backgrounds and experiences,” said Major Henry Chen. “Events like this give us the opportunity to appreciate our shared experiences, learn from each other, and reaffirm our commitment not just to the public but also to our friends and coworkers.”

The ceremony commenced with a traditional Lion Dance performed by the Chinese Freemasons, followed by a modeling showcase from the Sunflower Art and Dance Center. Later, a group of students from the Staten Island Academy sang together.

Justice Quinones emphasized the significance of the national theme for this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, “Bridging Histories, Shaping Our Future.” 

Hon. Joanne Quinones, chair of the Second Judicial District Equal Justice Committee.
Hon. Joanne Quinones, chair of the Second Judicial District Equal Justice Committee.

“We hope this will serve as a catalyst for a meaningful dialogue about the rich heritage of our AAPI community and a celebration of the trailblazers who made progress for our future generations,” Justice Quinones said. “Trailblazers like Hon. Danny Chun, the first Korean American ADA in Manhattan and also the first Korean-American judge in New York State. This month, he celebrates his 25th judicial anniversary.”

Judge Ally commended Justice Quinones for her unwavering support of various heritage and history months. 

“Justice Quinones is the definition of allyship,” said Judge Ally. “It doesn’t matter if it is Hispanic Heritage, Black History Month, Asian American Heritage, Pride — she is there front and center, so thank you very much. This is meaningful, the first celebration like this in Kings County. Thank you for calling out Judge Chun. He tries to stay hidden.”

Hon. Shahabuddeen Ally, president of the Asian American Judges Association of New York and Supervising Judge of the New York City Civil Court.
Hon. Shahabuddeen Ally, president of the Asian American Judges Association of New York and Supervising Judge of the New York City Civil Court.

Keynote Address by Justice Donald Leo

Judge Leo is an Acting Supreme Court Justice who was appointed to the Criminal Court bench in December 2015 and reappointed in 2019. He was designated to the Supreme Court bench in 2018 by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks. 

A graduate of New York University and Brooklyn Law School, he served with the New York County District Attorney’s Office for over a decade before becoming Deputy Bureau Chief of the Sex Offender Management Bureau with the NYS Attorney General’s Office. 

His professional affiliations include the Asian American Bar Association of New York, the Association of the Judges of the Criminal Court of the City of New York, the New York City Bar Association, and the Bay Ridge Lawyers Association.

During his speech, Judge Leo shared his personal journey, the challenges faced by the Asian community and the distrust it had towards the court system that stemmed from a lack of representation in it.

“Growing up in the Manhattan Chinatown community, there was a huge distrust of the court system, especially the criminal justice system,” said Judge Leo. “Asian victims of crimes did not want to report their crimes, many people in my community could not participate on jury duty, and there was very little access to the criminal courts for members of my community.”

Hon. Donald Leo, Acting Supreme Court Justice of Kings County.
Hon. Donald Leo, Acting Supreme Court Justice of Kings County.

He recounted his initial reluctance to pursue a career in law, instead aspiring to be a journalist to address issues affecting his community. However, an inspiring article about an Italian-American prosecutor led him to join the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

“When I started, the AAPI representation was paltry,” Judge Leo said. “In Manhattan, I could count five ADAs. One of them was my mentor, Judge Chun. There was very little representation and very few, if any, Asian court officers. The support was essentially non-existent, with the exception of one or two interpreters. We have come a long way with our representation in the courts, but there is still a lot to be done.”

He highlighted the progress made, mentioning that there are now 63 Asian American judges across the state, compared to just three when he began his legal career.

“In recognizing our AAPI heritage, we’re growing a more inclusive and fairer judicial system. Most importantly, acknowledging all of our different backgrounds and the journeys we all took addresses implicit bias, and I can speak from personal experience that even as a judge. I suffer from implicit bias, and I have more work to do,” said Leo.

On June 4th, the Second Judicial District Equal Justice Committee will host its first Pride Month celebration at 360 Adams in the Surrogate’s Court.


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