Women Supreme Court Justices in NY make history

New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Term, Second Department, for the 2nd, 11th and 13th Judicial Districts (Brooklyn, Queens and Richmond Counties, respectively) made history on Wednesday, Jan. 25 with a bench comprising all women and with the appointment of Trinidadian-born Hon. Wavny Toussaint, the first woman and person of color to serve as presiding justice.

The other members are: Associate Justices Marina Mundy, of Richmond County; Lisa S. Ottley, of Kings County, whose father hailed from Trinidad and Tobago; and Lourdes Ventura and Cheree Buggs, of Queens County.

Hon. Toussaint, who was elected to the New York Supreme Court in 2014 and appointed to the Appellate Term in 2020, is regarded as a jurist of “high integrity.”

The court hears appeals from the New York City Civil Court, including its Housing and Small Claims Parts, and the New York City Criminal Court.

As Presiding Justice, Wednesday was also especially important to Justice Toussaint because it was her deceased mother’s birthday.

On entering the courtroom and bringing the court to order, Toussaint shared with those appearing before the panel of Justices the historic moment of the court and a brief background about herself and her family migrating to the United States.

She thanked the Appellate Term’s non-judicial staff and acknowledged the support the justices receive from the “well-versed legal department” in the areas of law that come before the court.

Justice Toussaint’s colleagues on the Appellate Term bench include Justices Buggs, who was appointed in 2021, and Ottley, who was appointed in 2023, along with Justices Mundy and Ventura.

Justice Mundy is the first woman jurist on the New York Supreme Court, Criminal Term, in Richmond County; Justice Ventura is the first Latina to be appointed to this Appellate Term; and Justice Ottley was the first African American Woman to supervise the Civil Court in Kings County.

“I’m extremely excited but more so honored to be a part of this historic bench with the Hon. Wavny Toussaint,” Justice Ottley told Caribbean Life on Friday. “I have a great deal of respect for her and her vision for the court, as well as for my colleagues who are part of this bench.”

Last May, for the first time in history, three Black women justices in New York also created history by hearing cases together from the bench in the Appellate Term, Second Department, in the New York Supreme Court.

Then Presiding Justice Trinidadian Michelle Weston, Queens Associate Justice Buggs and Associate Justice 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 became 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.”

During her tenure as a Civil Court Judge, Justice Toussaint 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.

Justice Ottley was elected to the Civil Court in 2008 and, two years later, was appointed Supervising Judge.

Prior to her appointment as Acting Justice of the Supreme Court, she presided over cases in both Civil and Family Court in Kings County.

As Supervising Judge of the Civil Court, Kings County, she presided over the Trial Assignment Part in Civil Court.

Justice Ottley is the first African-American judge to be appointed as Supervising Judge of the Civil Court in Kings County.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, she credits her parents, George Ottley and Minnie Ottley, a native of Greenville, SC with raising her to be “independent, strong-willed and determined.”

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.

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.

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