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Family first

GERCINE CARTER, [email protected]

Family first

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SHARON CLARKE dreamed of being a judge when she was 13 years old. Today she is living her dream as New York’s newest elected civil court judge.

She currently presides over Family court – “hard work”, as she described it. “It is brutal but it is rewarding when you see the children and sometimes you can convince people to see the bigger picture, which is really the best interest of the children,” she told EASY.

Sharon’s Barbadian and Guyanese parentage had some bearing on the professional she is. When she is in the Thornbury Hill, Christ Church home with her parents Chesterfield and Eileen Joy Bourne, her delight is in reliving the memories of childhood experiences in Barbados.

She took time out of her recent six-day vacation here to speak with EASY about her Barbadian experience and her career. Sharon spent some of her formative years in Thornbury Hill and went first to Water Street Girls’ School and later to Christ Church High School for a brief period.

Her Barbadian father was a chemist at Searles Factory while her mother was a teacher from Guyana. They got married in Barbados and moved to Guyana just before she was born and later moved back to Barbados. Sharon took the Common Entrance Examination in Barbados before the family migrated to the US.

She was enrolled at Arthur S. Somers Junior High school, graduated at the top of her class and moved on to the Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn.

She told EASY: “I had this lofty dream I wanted to go to Harvard University when I graduated from Sheepshead Bay High School” but her parents had other ideas. Laughing, she related their response: “My parents said there is a really great school down the block. That’s called the poor man’s Harvard and it is called Brooklyn College and that’s where you are going to go because that’s where we can afford to send you.”

That is where she went and graduated with a degree in sociology. But tugged by the lingering childhood desire to be a lawyer, she decided to go to City University of New York (CUNY) Law School, drawn by the attraction of the new law school’s programme of Model Law in the Service of Human Needs.

“The reason I was inspired to do that was when I was growing up in Barbados my aunt, who I lived with – we were not well off at all – felt there were always people in the community people who needed it more than we did and she felt she always had to be helping other people. So I too felt this really great need, the necessity to give back to society.”

“I wanted to make sure that I was the voice for the unrepresented and so I decided to do criminal defence work when I was at CUNY Law School.”

She began her law practice in the area of criminal defence and subsequently practised in diverse areas – working for a company representing the City of New York; holding the position of deputy general counsel for the New York State Division of Human Rights which addressed issues such as employment discrimination and sexual harassment on the job. She also went into private practice. But amidst it all, the desire to study at Harvard continued to burn fiercely until she finally submitted and enrolled at Harvard.

Looking back, she says: “It was a phenomenal experience.”

“The reason why I went there was my goal was to become a judge and not just to deal with individual cases as I am now. I wanted to affect large scale policy when I became a judge. I wanted to be an administrative judge, someone who is able to direct policy for the constituents.”

She graduated from Harvard with a masters in public policy and administration.  She went on to initiate the process of being elected a judge and was inducted in December 2014.

“I made the decision that I wanted to become a judge,” she said. “You try to garner enough political support as much as you can. Mine was almost non-existent. There were already two candidates in the race when I decided to run. One already had the party blessing, the other one had a substantial amount of money.”

She defeated both contenders. She entered the race bolstered by the confidence that she had the background that would connect with the constituents because of the extent of her work in the community which encompasses Central Brooklyn, Park Slope, Crown Heights, Midwood and East Flatbush. She was aware she had to appeal to Blacks, Whites, the few Latinos and the American and Caribbean blacks who make up these diverse communities and she worked fervently to achieve this.

She was confident of her chances of winning even when her parents expressed concern that she may have been taking things too easy in the race.

She told EASY: “I went out and I shook hands, I knocked on doors, I did what was necessary . . . . I knew I had it.”

“I saw inequities in our system. I came from a society where everyone looked the same and I did not necessarily feel discriminated against.”

“But when you are living in a society like the United States, you really see the disparities that you are not familiar with. I saw that and I understand that for young black males it is very difficult to get a fair shake in our criminal justice system.”

There was therefore that strong motivation to get in there and try to change things.

Now that she is in the hot seat certain realities have become unclouded. “I thought that being a judge would be the way that I would be able to impact social change” she said.

“I realise now that it is through the legislature but back then I thought that being a judge would be the way to really impact that type of social change.”

Her two sons are now adults and she waited until her younger son was 18 before taking on the burdensome responsibility of a judge.

Though work in family court can be punishing, Sharon also finds it rewarding because she says: “I can still go home and sleep well at the end of the night because I feel like whatever decision I make, I struggled with it. There is a lot of decision fatigue because I really struggle to ensure that I can live with whatever decision I make.”

She is due on the bench at 9:30 in the morning and makes it there on time every day. But before she takes up her position, she would already have spent over an hour reviewing files “because I like to be familiar with all the cases that are coming before me”.

At 4:30 p.m. her day on the bench ends but not so her day’s work. She reaches home and it continues.

“I still have decisions to write. I take a little rest and then start working reading again, another two or three hours until about 9.30 at night. I try not to do anything after that because the brain just does not operate very much after that.”

Reading the Law Journal every day to keep abreast of changes is for her a must.

How does she unwind? “I read. I love to read and I watch stupid TV. I also exercise, and I spend time with my nieces and nephews.”

This judge has no qualms about expressing her love for “the finer things of life”. She enjoys dining out with her Jamaican husband, whom she describes as “a fantastic cook”.

Hers is a fulfilled life doing the one thing she always wanted to do.