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SEEN UP NORTH: Two Sylvias on the bench

Tony Best

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Walk along the corridors of the New York State Supreme Court complex in Kings County, just down the street from the historic Brooklyn Bridge, and it will become clear that significant changes are taking place in the halls of justice.
For one thing, there is a noticeable spring in the step of many women, whether they are attorneys, staffers or litigants doing business in the civil courts and offices.
For another, while the decorum and order that characterize the dispensing of justice have remained impeccable, maintaining Brooklyn’s reputation as one of the best-run judicial systems in the state and indeed the country, more cases seem to be on the docket as the tough economic times take a heavy toll on Brooklynites and they turn to courts for justice.
And with two black women from the Caribbean in prominent positions in the civil division, the pecking order has undergone a major transformation at a time when increasing attention is being focused on the role of women, including black women.
At the top of that order is Sylvia Hinds-Radix, a Barbadian who is the administrative judge of the civil courts. She was joined in January by Sylvia Ash, a Trinidadian by birth but a jurist with Vincentian and Grenadian roots.
Known as the “two Sylvias”, the West Indians bring a commonsense approach to the job.
“We are in court to dispense justice and our role is to ensure that justice is served,” said Justice Hinds-Radix, who grew up in St James but has spent most of her adult life in the United States, where she received her higher education and became an attorney in Washington, DC.
“I say to people all the time that we are not in court to make you rich, but to put you back in the position which you were in before whatever injustice or infraction occurred.” Ash agreed.
“When I ran in 2005 for civil court judge, I felt that as a judge I could be of greater service to my community,” said the woman whose mother came from St Vincent and father from Grenada.
“I felt I could ensure that justice is dispensed in a fair and judicial manner. I believe that as a judge, I would have more control in making sure that the law is applied fairly and in accordance with the law,” Ash said.
Quite unlike Barbados and its neighbours where judges are appointed by governments, New York State’s civil and Supreme Courts are elected by voters and each term runs at least 12 years.
Although they face the electorate and are endorsed by political parties, they are restricted in the way they campaign for the bench. For instance, they don’t have large advertising campaign budgets.
Given their strikingly similar attitudes to the bench and life, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that they travelled the same road to the bench. Both attended Howard University’s Law School; did stints as staff attorneys at District Council 37, the largest municipal union in the country, and were each elected first to the civil court and then to the higher court.
In addition, they are very close friends, mothers, and are closely connected to the Caribbean immigrant community in the city.
“Actually, we have been close friends dating back to our days at Howard University,” Ash said.
“We were known back then as the ‘two Sylvias’. I have the greatest respect and admiration for Judge Hinds-Radix as a person, a judge and the administrator of the civil court. She is truly an outstanding human being and jurist.”