Three Black women justices create history, hear Appellate Term cases together from bench

Justices standing in the courtroom: From left, Hons. Wavny Toussaint, Michelle Weston (both of Kings County Supreme Court) and Hon. ChereŽ Buggs, of Queens County Supreme Court.
NYS court system

For the first time in history, three Black women justices in New York created history last Wednesday by hearing cases together from the bench, for the very first time, in the Appellate Term, Second Department, in the New York Supreme Court.

Presiding Justice Michelle Weston, Queens Associate Justice Chereé Antoinette Buggs and Associate Justice Wavny Toussaint heard the cases at the courthouse at the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Brooklyn Heights, downtown Brooklyn. Cases are normally heard in the adjacent Appellate Term’s courthouse on Livingston Street.

“Today is an historic occasion for the Appellate Term,” said Justice Weston, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, before the hearing began. “I have had the honor and privilege to serve on this court for 28 years, for many of them as the only woman.

“It was just a year ago, last February 2021, when Justice Donna Golia, joined our court, that we made history with the first all-female panel,” she added. “Today, we are making history once again. Today marks the first time the Appellate Term has a panel comprised of three judges that are women of color.

“History is changing rapidly,” Justice Weston continued. “This year, as we know, the esteemed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was appointed to the US Supreme Court. There was a sense of pride that a woman of color who looks like the judges on this panel rose to the highest court in our country.

“In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., (the slain civil rights leader), ‘we are not makers of history, we are made by history,’” she said. “I want to thank the Hon. Hector LaSalle for hosting us on this historic occasion.”

Justice Buggs told Caribbean Life exclusively afterwards that she was “incredibly humbled to have been a part of such wonderful history in the state’s court system.

“My sincerest hope is that what occurred on Wednesday will become a norm, considering the great diversity of our city and state,” she added. “I am also honored to have accomplished history together with two colleagues with whom I have deep respect, the Hon. Michelle Weston (who was the sole Black woman on the Appellate Term, Second Department for the 2nd, 11th and 13th Judicial Districts for over a quarter of a century), and the Hon. Wavny Toussaint.”

Toussaint – who serves as a judge in Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term, becoming the first Trinidadian to be elected a judge in New York, when she was elected to Kings County Civil Court in 2002 – told the Brooklyn Eagle: “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.”

In addition to hearing appeals at the Appellate Term, the New York State Bar Association said Justice Weston presides over medical malpractice trials in New York State Supreme Court.

The association said Justice Weston’s judicial career began in 1989, when she was appointed to Criminal Court. In 1990, she became the first African-American woman elected to the New York Supreme Court in the Second Judicial District.

Justice Weston served in the Criminal Term until February 1995, when she was assigned to the Civil Term of Supreme Court.

Since then, Justice Weston has presided over matrimonial, guardianship and medical malpractice actions, the New York Bar Association said.

Prior to joining the bench, Justice Weston served as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, followed by private practice.

In addition to her judicial duties, the New York Bar Association said Justice Weston has served as chair of the Judicial Section, and as chair of the Committee on Procedures for Judicial Discipline of the New York State Bar Association.

She is also an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School, where she teaches the Judicial Seminar.

Justice Buggs is an Associate Justice of the Appellate Term, Second Department for the 2nd, 11th and 13th Judicial Districts. She is an elected justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Queens.

Justice Buggs said she is a Queens native, who was raised in St. Albans and Queens Village, and attended Queens public schools.

Prior to her election to the New York Supreme Court in 2016, she was an elected judge of the Civil Court of the City of New York, Queens County.

After her 2007 election to Civil Court, Justice Buggs said she served in Family Court for one year (2008), in Civil Court for seven years (2009-2015), and for one year in Supreme Court as an Acting Supreme Court Justice (2015).

On her appointment to the Appellate Department, Second Department in January 2022, Justice Buggs became part of an historic panel which, for the first time, includes four women among its five members, with three of those women being African-American. The Appellate Term hears and decides appeals of New York City Criminal and Civil Courts.

From left, Hons. Wavny Toussaint, Michelle Weston (both of Kings County Supreme Court) and Hon. Chereé Buggs, of Queens County Supreme Court. Justice Chereé Buggs

Justice Buggs said she still presides on the trial level in Supreme Court, where she is the judge designated to hear mental hygiene matters in Queens County, and where she also presides over guardianship cases pursuant to Mental Hygiene Article 81.

Her activities outside of judicial duties have included convening community forums in 2019 on the “Raise the Age” law on behalf of the New York State Unified Court System’s Office for Justice Initiatives.

Also, in 2019, she was appointed to the state court system’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, the panel charged with providing guidance to judges on ethics issues.

Prior to her ascension to the bench, Justice Buggs was an attorney in private practice. Her work included a solo law practice, with a focus on elder law guardianship and decedents’ estate matters, and litigating mental health cases for the Health & Hospitals Corporation and Jamaica Hospital Medical Center.

While working as a solo practitioner, she also served as a senior administrative law judge with the New York City Department of Finance Parking Violations Operations, and, later, as an administrative law judge for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the City’s Environmental Control Board.

Judge Buggs’ vast legal experience includes two years at the New York City Council, where she served as counsel to the Committees on Aging, Oversight and Investigations, and to the Subcommittee on Senior Centers.

Justice Wavny Toussaint serves as an Associate Justice of the Appellate Term, Supreme Court of the State of New York for the 2nd, 11th and 13th Judicial Districts, hearing appeals from the New York City Criminal, Civil, Small Claims and Housing Courts in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

She simultaneously serves as an elected justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Kings County (Civil Branch).

During her tenure as a Civil Court Judge, she was assigned to serve in New York City Criminal and Civil Courts, as well as New York State Family Court in Kings County.

Justice Toussaint’s Bar Association and community service include board member of the New York City Supreme Court Justices Association and the Caribbean American Lawyers Association; Nominations Committee Chair of The Judicial Friends Inc.; life member of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association; member of the National Bar Association and its Judicial Council; the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association; the Columbian Lawyers; and the Brooklyn Bar Association.

She is a decades-long member of the Association of Black Women Attorneys, previously serving as both a president and board member.

Justice Toussaint also serves on the General Board of the Church of the Nazarene Inc., and is currently a member of the District Advisory Board for the Metro New York District of the Church of the Nazarene.

At her local church, she is a board member and serves in its compassionate ministry.