Home > PUM One on One: Justice Shawndya Luisa Simpson, Becomes State of New York Supreme Court Justice

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PANAMANIAN IMMIGRANTS’ GRANDDAUGHTER, SHAWNDYA LUISA SIMPSON, 

BECOMES STATE OF NEW YORK SUPREME COURT JUSTICE

 

IntroductionFollowing her career as one of New York's most experienced and accomplished prosecutors, on November 4, 2003, Shawndya Luisa Simpson was elected in Brooklyn to a ten-year term as a Civil Court Judge of the City of New York.  In 2013, she was re-elected to another ten-year term and subsequently became an Acting Supreme Court Justice sitting in Kings County Supreme Court presiding over felony matters.  On January 12, 2017, she was sworn in as a Justice of the Supreme Court for the State of New York.  Her phenomenal career is proof of Malcolm X’s 1962 declaration, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

During Judge Simpson’s years at the University of Pittsburgh, I had the privilege of knowing her as an undergraduate as well as a Law School student.  Although I was a tiny part of her past, she has become a major part of New York citizens’ future.  In addition to the University of Pittsburgh honoring her as a distinguished graduate, she has been honored numerous times by local and national organizations for her community service.  She was featured in a 2009 issue of Essence

Judge Simpson is married to Jacob Walthour, Jr., Managing Director at Blueprint Capital Advisors. They have four children Shariah, Sharidan, Jacob Ross and Sharis.

*****

               JLD.  Judge Simpson, congratulations on your outstanding career which illustrates so well what it takes to make the impossible, possible.  You were born in Brooklyn, New York and resided in public housing which gave you the "opportunity" to experience the adverse realities of inner-city life.  As such, you were a candidate for the "school-to-prison pipeline."  Instead, by 1987, you had triumphantly earned your baccalaureate in Information Science and, subsequently, your Juris Doctor in 1990 from the University of Pittsburgh.  In terms of your early childhood experiences, what was key to you becoming "Lady Justice" instead of "Inmate 2017?"

               SLS.  When I spoke at my recent induction, I took time to honor my grandmothers whose bravery and many sacrifices contributed significantly to me making history as the first Panamanian-American New York State Supreme Court Justice.  Grandma Ionie Peggy Smith Stewart passed away 10 years ago and Grandma Utella Robbie Carmichael who is 101 were successful entrepreneurs in Panama, but in true American immigrant fashion, were willing to migrate to America and begin working as domestic servants in order that their offspring might have better lives.

As two of my key role models, I learned things associated with being a good wife and loving mother as well as things such as being meticulous, getting a good education, and being competitive.  

Grandma Robbie was prim and proper, everything had to be a certain way.  Grandma Peggy was very competitive and, for example, when the project bully was coming for you, she would say “You better jump in and beat her or I’m going to beat you! So which would you prefer?”  I looked at my grandmother, then looked at the bully, and I said “I’ll go for the bully.”

               My dedicated mother, Shirley Brunell Ross, along with my unwavering stepfather, provided me and my siblings with a solid foundation that included showing us the beauty of a good marriage.  My mother instilled in me three very valuable things which were [1] Never, ever forget where you came from; [2] Whatever you do, be true to yourself; and [3] No matter what you accomplish in life, the title you may have or money you make, you remain humble.  And humble is what I will forever be as I continue to serve the people of New York, every day striving to be a humble obedient servant leader. 

JLD.  As you know, the National Association of Colored Women adopted the motto, “Lifting as We Climb.”  Throughout your life, you have done precisely that while working with organizations such as Project Reach Youth; Bedford YMCA; Legal Lives Adopt-A-School; Homeless Families Rights Project; Boys & Girls Club of Newark; Interfaith Hospitality Network; Jack & Jill of America Inc.; Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.; and others.  What are the inspirational roots from which your public service commitments grew?

SLS.  Poverty can be demoralizing and leave scars of anger and distrust.  As such, I know personally the feelings of helplessness.   Also, through mentorship one can make a powerful difference in the lives of others.  All it takes is one person, just one person, to make a difference in your life, a difference in your being. Therefore, for example, each year I take on three interns, one in high school, one in college and one in law school in order to provide them with guidance related to this field.  

JLD.  As we were doing this interview, in the midst of preparing for your recent induction as a New York State Supreme Court Judge and related activities, you once got back to me at 12:50 a.m.!  Your “24/7” work ethic brings me to something Shonda Rhimes discussed in her book, Year of Yes, i.e., what she termed the “big questions” such as “How do I manage work and home?  What is my secret to finding balance in a busy world?”  Since you are married, have four children, are engaged in an abundance of community service, along with your extremely demanding position as a critically important Judge, I’m sure you too have been asked the “big questions.”  From whence does your strength come for managing your multi-faceted life?

SLS.  I have a very supportive husband, Jake Walthour, who works on Wall Street as a Principal/Owner of his firm, Blueprint Capital.  However, if I need any assistance with the children or the household, FAMILY COMES FIRST!  During the campaign circuit, there were many days when he was mother and father, had to take off work, or come home early because I had to attend some political event.  We are a good team and our support for each other is unwavering.  We take great pride that our children know that we work hard, we play hard, and we pray hard --and even with the kinks, at the end of the day, things just have a way of working themselves out.

JLD.  Clearly you are what some term “properly yoked.”  Changing topics for a moment, you know that our country currently faces a number of challenges in terms of making good on its promise to be a nation serving all of its people well.  As a Judge, how do you help do this?

SLS.  I know that the application of humility can heal wounds and relationships. Even if a person is not granted their wish, being treated with respect can make a positive difference in their perceptions of the judiciary and whether justice was rendered.  As a Judge, I have not only upheld my responsibility to adjudicate within the confines of the law, but I have also executed my responsibilities in a way that preserves the dignity of all participants in the legal process and demonstrates concern for the relationship these participants have with the judiciary.  Possessing the requisite measure of humility has allowed me to use my position on the bench to be a voice for the voiceless.

JLD.  Having grown up under the influence of those you describe as your “prayer warrior” grandmothers, I’m sure you know the biblical story in which Judge Solomon was faced with two women arguing over to whom a newborn child belonged.  Solomon “resolved” the matter when he said essentially, “cut the child in half and give each woman a half” at which time the true mother asked that the child be given to the other woman.  During your time as Judge, what was one of your greatest “Solomon-like” cases?

               SLS.   It was a case that left me an emotional wreck for weeks, one in which I felt I couldn’t bend the law to work with me to find in favor of the defendant, Donald Kagan, who had already served 16 years.  I cried while writing the decision (the law just wasn’t on his side); I cried before I made my ruling and was a mess after.  But, all in all, I was so devastated that I wrote a letter to the Parole Board and begged them to release him.  Yes, he finally got released and I got the call on my milestone birthday….One of the best gifts ever!  (For more details regarding this murder case, see http://pix11.com/2015/11/02/two-judges-tearful-about-1998-movie-theater-shooting-that-sent-man-to-prison-for-murder/).

JLD.  What President Obama said about the qualities for Supreme Court justices is quite applicable to you, i.e., We need somebody who’s got the heart — the empathy — to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old… (A person) who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives.”  

The people of New York, indeed our nation, are most fortunate to have you, Judge Simpson because, in my opinion, the “shattering of the glass ceiling” is a matter of women being able to achieve at the highest levels across the full spectrum of professional roles, regardless of their race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, religion, or country of origin.  Once inside the “rooms” heretofore off limits to women, one must not simply be a “new player” but also “change the nature of the games” being played.   Thus, we are very well served by having you personify the symbol, “Lady Justice,” wearing a blindfold that truly means providing “equal justice under the law for all.”

 

Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor

January 18, 2017

 

 

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