Justice Marguerite Grays made history in June when she became the first African American woman to serve as administrative judge in Queens Supreme Court, Civil Term.
Her appointment, nearly ten months after her predecessor retired, comes at amid historic moment, and a crucial period for the legal system in one of the nation’s largest counties.
Judges, attorneys and everyday residents have questions about the gradual reopening plan and the resumption of cases and the Civil Term building on Sutphin Boulevard has reopened for some in-person proceedings after adapting to transformational changes, particularly the expansion of remote services, during the months-long courthouse shutdown.
The technology implemented when COVID-19 forced building closures and case suspensions in mid-March will remain a fixture of the Queens legal justice system. It’s an evolving aspect of the courts that Grays plans to adjust and perfect.
“The pandemic of course brought things to the court system that we have never ever faced or ever thought we’d have to face as we try to administer justice,” Grays said. “It’s been a day-to-day operation and we’re trying to make sure we can provide access to justice to the public as we are charged to do.”
She said she plans to prioritize improving the use of technology during her tenure and maintaining lines of communication between the bench and bar. As she talked Monday, Grays was getting ready to send a notice about the shift from one remote technology, Skype for Business, to another, Microsoft Teams. She said the software will better serve all parties.
“We’ve all learned to pivot depending on the challenge we’re facing at any individual time,” she said. “The technology component has continued to allow us to move cases along and conduct conferences. Technology has been very helpful to ensuring access to justice.”
Queens is experiencing a reprieve from the most devastating effects of the coronavirus, which killed thousands of residents and sickened tens of thousands more while forcing hundreds of thousands of people out of work. But as COVID-19 surges elsewhere in the country, public health experts predict a resurgence in New York City, likely in the Fall.
Grays said its her mission to protect court personnel, attorneys and litigants if and when COVID-19 spikes again in Queens.
“Safety is my number one priority so that we don’t cause anyone illness,” she said. That again relates to her other goals of improving technology and communication.
“One of the things I find helpful is if we can get information to the public, it takes away a lot of the mystery and confusion and concerns,” Grays said. “More open dialogue to practitioners in Queens so that the court is more user-friendly.”
HOW IT ALL STARTED: From Springfield Gardens to Queens Supreme
On her way to the top of the Queens legal system, Grays absorbed wisdom and guidance from a number of individuals not least of all, the other judges she worked with as law clerk, justice and deputy administrative judge.
“Albert Grant in Civil Court taught me to listen to people and attention to detail when you’re drafting decisions,” she said.
Former Supreme Court Justice Joscelyn Smith demonstrated “patience and judicial temperament” and the meaning of the phrase “temper justice with mercy,” she said.
Justice Frederick Sampson modeled another motto: “Never judge a schoolhouse by its bricks.”
“You have to always listen to what’s being presented to you and not have preconceived notions,” she said, before adding another kernel of Sampson wisdom. “Always follow the law. If you follow the law, you’ll be able to sleep at night.”
In her most recent role as deputy administrative judge, she learned from her predecessor, Administrative Judge Jeremy Weinstein.
“He gave me that final area of administrative experience,” she said. “Listen to your colleagues and see if there is a way to problem solve. One person doesn’t have all the answers, so sometimes you have to listen to get wisdom from others to arrive at the right administrative decision.”
Though she has changed positions in the legal system, one thing has remained nearly constant since she earned her law degree in 1983.
“The running joke is I can’t get off of Sutphin Boulevard,” Grays said.
Grays began her career handling landlord-tenant cases at Queens Legal Services, an organization that provides counsel, social work support and advocacy for low-income New Yorkers. QLS is based at 8900 Suthpin Boulevard, “directly across the street” from the Civil and Supreme Court buildings, Grays noted (it’s also the same building as the Queens Daily Eagle office).
She did spend some time off Sutphin, clerking for Sampson in Long Island City and working at a union office in Manhattan.
Soon, however, she found her way back to the Jamaica court network, serving as a clerk for a few other judges before her election to the Civil Court bench in 2000. Grays was first elected to the Supreme Court bench in 2003 and again in 2017.
Over her career, she has built a reputation for fairness, consistency and respect among her colleagues and the attorneys and litigants who enter her courtroom.
Weinstein said those qualities motivated him to appoint Grays as his deputy, with the ultimate goal of her taking over as top judge.
“I appointed Judge Grays as Deputy Administrative Judge because I knew she had the skill set to be an excellent AJ,” Weinstein told the Eagle in June. “Intelligent, personable and dedicated, she possesses all the qualities of leadership.”
Grays grew up in Springfield Gardens and received her bachelor’s law degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She continued onto law school and earned her juris doctorate at Hofstra University’s School of Law.
A Trailblazing Role
Grays’ historic role as the first African American woman to serve as chief administrative judge in Queens Supreme comes as the country and New York City grapple with the impact of institutional racism. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has appointed a task force to examine how racism pervades the court system, for example.
Grays said she was particularly proud to lead the court in the current moment.
“I’m very blessed and so proud to have assumed this position,” Grays said. “We’ve had tremendously great administrative judges in the past and I’m especially proud to be the first African American female to hold this position in this historic time of change.”
“It means a tremendous amount,” she continued. “I’m so proud I can continue serving the people of Queens.”
During her nearly two decades on the bench, Grays has served as presiding judge of the commercial division in Queens and the foreclosure settlement part. She also worked on various state committees, including chairing the Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts.
Grays is the current president of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Women Judges and chair of the Board of Trustees at the Law Library of Queens County.
She is also a past-president of the Queens County Women’s Bar Association and the Association of Black Women Attorneys.
Throughout her career, Grays has remained invested in her native Queens and her neighbors. She said she wants the borough’s nearly 2.4 million residents to know the courts exist to serve them
“I’d like them to know our courthouse is open for business. I’d like them to know that the judges work hard, the non-judicial staff work hard and we are here to serve the public,” she said. “And when they bring their cases to the Supreme Court Civil Term, they will get a fair disposition of any matter before them.”