By David Brand
Over a span of a few decades, Hon. Joseph A. Zayas ascended from the park benches outside his childhood public housing complex to the bench inside Queens’ highest criminal court.
Though his path from the projects to the judge’s chambers are not typical, his experiences have enabled him to thrive in various settings and given him a unique perspective that he says reflects the importance of empathy.
“Empathy is the characteristic of a judge that is most important, but people confuse it with sympathy,” Zayas said. “They think you’re going to sympathize with the David in every ‘David and Goliath’ story but that’s not what empathy is. Empathy means that you’re going to put yourself in the shoes of the litigant before you — that may be a cop, it may be a victim.”
Zayas, the administrative judge for the Queens County Supreme Court, Criminal Term, said that practicing empathy simply means upholding a judge’s requirement to thoughtfully consider the experiences and motivations of others.
“Varied life experiences help a judge to implement that and dispense justice in a way that is fair,” he said.
And Zayas has certainly had varied life experiences, as evidenced by his childhood and his education.
Zayas grew up in the Frederick Douglass Houses on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and attended Norman Thomas High School in Murray Hill.
As graduation approached, Zayas did not know what he wanted to pursue. Fortunately, a teacher had encouraged him to read the New York Times every day, a ritual that enabled Zayas to develop an interest in social justice and civil rights.
After stints at CUNY Bronx Community College, SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Binghamton, Zayas finished his undergraduate career at Fordham University before attending Columbia Law School.
Zayas was admitted to the bar in April 1989 and less than a year later he was already arguing a case in the state Court of Appeals while working for Legal Aid.
“Here I was just admitted to the bar and I’m arguing in the state’s top court,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”
By that time, Zayas had moved with his wife and young daughter to Woodside, where the family paid about $400 for a two-bedroom apartment. Zayas and his wife recently celebrated their 35th anniversary and have three children, including a son about to start his first semester at St. John’s Law School, a daughter who is a social worker and another daughter who is a trained court reporter and mother to Zayas’ two grandchildren.
Zayas’ varied experiences also extended to the courtroom, where he argued in appeals court and transitioned to trial lawyer before returning to appeals.
“It made me better lawyer,” he said. “I became a better trial lawyer because I had appeals experience and I became a better appeals lawyer because I had trial experience.”
After practicing law for about nine years, Zayas was recruited by Hon. Rolando Acosta to serve as court attorney in Civil Court. The work took Zayas to the Harlem Community Justice Center, a problem-solving court located in his old stomping grounds.
The Community Justice Center aims to keep tenants in their homes and a hosts a youth court and other initiatives for justice-involved young people designed to reduce contact with the justice system, according to the Center for Court Innovation. Law enforcement, community-service organizations, families and faith-based groups partner to break the cycle of recidivism and help individuals navigate life after incarceration.
While working at the court, Zayas encountered several people he knew from childhood, relationships that further highlighted the multiplicity of his life.
“I grew up in a tough neighborhood and my in-laws lived ten blocks from the courthouse,” he said. “I could find myself at a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf Astoria and the next day I could be in El Barrio at my mother-in-law’s apartment for my brother-in-law’s birthday party.”
“Or I could be a litigator in the Court of Appeals and the next day I’d be at my niece’s baby shower in the South Bronx,” he continued. “I live in both worlds and I cross over and that’s a good thing in the criminal field.”
In June 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Zayas judge of the Criminal Court of New York City. In that role, he presided over Queens’ drug treatment court and helped found Queens’ mental health court. In 2010, he became acting justice of the State Supreme Court and in 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed him judge of the Court of Claim.
Zayas was elected Justice of the Queens County Supreme Court in 2016.
He said navigating challenges in his childhood neighborhood, in his elite law school and inside the city’s demanding courtrooms have helped mold him into a strong attorney and a judge.
“It made me not only street smart, but I also got to go to an Ivy League law school and I [was] arguing cases in the state’s top courts,” Zayas said. “It helped me be pragmatic in the way I dispense justice.”