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New York, Politics, Profiles

Caroline Cohen Speaks to The Haitian Times About Running For Civil Court Judge and What that Means to the Brooklyn Haitian Community

By Jonathan Greig

Caroline P. Cohen announced in March that she was running for the Democratic nomination for Civil Court Judge in Kings County’s 6th Judicial District after years as a resident of the district and decades as a litigator.

The 6th Judicial District encompasses neighborhoods with large Haitian and Haitian-American populations, covering Flatbush, East Flatbush, Crown Heights, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Midwood, Prospect Heights, Ditmas Park, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Kensington and Prospect Park South.

The mother of two spoke with The Haitian Times about her candidacy, why the race is important and what drove her to run.

What are your thoughts on immigration and how would you be able to use your role as a Civil Court judge to impact change on immigration that’s favorable to the Haitian community?

My family is a family of immigrants as well. We fled poverty, we fled unsafe conditions and because of my immigrant roots I deeply sympathize with other people who have similar plights.

I’m a deep believer that as a person who lives in the community that I do, I need to stand in solidarity with my community. When Trump was threatening to roll back TPS, I took my family, including my preschooler and my toddler, in a stroller and I marched with Jumaane Williams, Rodneyse Bichotte and Josue Pierre across the Brooklyn Bridge in protest of that possibility.

It’s very important for me to remember and act accordingly, that my family was not so different some years ago, and that’s really what guides me in my actions. As a Civil Court judge, in all likelihood I will not address immigration issues of the sort that I just described. However, if ICE requests to come into my courtroom, of course that’s a hard no.

That really is the bottom line in terms of the protections that I can afford litigants that will come before me in any courtroom that I sit in. Its important to be mindful of the lack of safety, security and confidence that recent immigrants lack when they are entering into the court system. There is understandably a reticence there. There is deep concern that appearing for a routine court matter will potentially result in their deportation or being flagged somehow.

My goal as a Civil Court Judge is to not only address the matter at hand but make sure the people who come before me truly feel comfortable and are able to appropriately articulate what the issue is. And they will be unable to do so if they are fearful. My goal is to make them feel secure while they’re in my courtroom.

Why should voters choose you?

Court can be a terrifying experience and my goal, because of my ties to the community and my position as a young compassionate mother, I just want to be able to partner with people, particularly those who do not have an attorney.

I want to assist people in rendering a fair and equitable decision. Whether you have an attorney or you don’t, it doesn’t matter. You come before me and you should feel comfortable telling your story and arming me with the information I need in order to make the most equitable decision possible.

Not only am I potentially able to look at a case and know the law, but I can also look at it through the lens of a compassionate mother. The facts are not the only things that need to be kept in mind but instead it is the totality of the circumstances that really need to be focused on.

What past positions have you held that have prepared you for this job?

I have been a litigator since the beginning of my career, which I think uniquely prepares a person for the kind of judge that I want to be. I’ve been in the trenches and been doing real boots-on-the-ground litigation since I graduated law school.

Right now, I’m a civil rights attorney and I do work with victims of gender and pregnancy discrimination. I do the kind of cases that you hear about unfortunately on television. Women who are sexually assaulted by their bosses, women who are pushed into quid pro quo relationships by their supervisors in an effort to engage the employee in a sex act in exchange for either a promotion or just being able to keep their job.

I’m also a tenant advocate. I work with individuals who are staying in rent-stabilized apartments. On the flip side, I was a landlord-side attorney for many years, so I have a lot of experience in volume litigation. I have real, practical experience that I can apply on the job. I’m able to mediate disputes and really heated situations and I have the ability to break down complex legal issues in a way that people, particularly lay people who are not represented by an attorney, can understand.

When a person walks into my courtroom, whether or not they have an attorney, I want that individual to feel ownership over the courtroom because they voted me in there and the courtroom is a place for the community. I want those individuals to feel empowered to tell their story and comfortable enough to try to advocate for themselves.

I have noticed a lack of engagement in terms of voters and this sort of election. I’m actively working to push against the apathy that we see in local elections and judicial elections. I am very dedicated to engaging our community in particular.

I want people to feel ownership over the election. Most people don’t even know that judges are elected, which is truly unfortunate because it’s much more likely that within the course of someone’s life they are going to be impacted by a judge versus another type of local elected official.

Because of that, it’s so crucial that people really learn that they have a say in who really sits on these seats. Moreover, it should be someone who has a proven track record of being deeply engaged with the community and has an understanding of the diversity that Brooklyn offers, that this municipal district offers and that Flatbush offers.

(L-R) Caroline Cohen, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Councilwoman-elect Farah Louis.

What separates you from your opponents?

All my opponents are very smart, capable women but I am the only candidate who actually lives in the district, who was found qualified to sit as a Civil Court Judge. The people of this community deserve someone that knows the community intimately like I do because I’ve lived in Flatbush for almost 10 years.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve worked with local political leaders including Rodneyse, Josue, Jumaane Williams, and Corey Provost, so I really have an understanding of the different aspects of our incredibly diverse community.

I want to be able to bring that community knowledge, that community wherewithal, to the bench. I’ve been supported by a bunch of people throughout the district. And that in large part is due to my involvement in the community. I’m an active member of the Shirley Chisholm Democratic Club, Brooklyn Young Democrats and South Midwood Residents Association. All of those organizations are located in the heart of our community and in the heart of the district.

What made you run for Civil Court Judge?

Becoming a judge has been a real career-long goal. My mom had me later in life and she came of age in a time when women were not really supported in the workplace. Her ultimate goal was to become a lawyer with the end result of becoming a judge but her father said no.

It was a really seminal moment in her life. And in my life she saw a lot of herself in me. She saw the same intellectual curiosity. The same leadership, strength of character. She made me think about going to law school and think about becoming a judge.

My entire career has really been dedicated to public service both in a micro and macro sense. I was able to meet Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte and Democratic District Leader Josue Pierre through my activities in the neighborhood.

In fact, Rodneyse is the person who called me and she knew about my goals and she knew about my dreams and she was really impressed with my work ethic and my dedication to the community and of course my legal career. She said it looks like there’s an opportunity for you to run. If you want to do this, I’m gonna help you do it.


Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.
Jonathan Greig
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Jun. 10, 2019

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