Dolores Dorsainvil was 19 when she felt like the world stopped. It was the day her older brother told her the news in the living room of her Long Island, New York home. She chose not to believe it at first, but it was real. The worst had happened: Their parents were gone.
Dorsainvil’s parents, Josephine and Pierre Dorsainvil, had gone to Haiti from Long Island for a family vacation in June 1995. They were shot dead inside their home in Arcahaie, a town 23 miles from Port-au-Prince. Josephine died instantly. Pierre died at a hospital in Port-au-Prince the following day.
“My parents never came back home,” said Dorsainvil. “It was hard to go in their bedroom. You don’t expect the people who loved you and took care of you all their lives would end up murdered.”
A college sophomore at the time, Dorsainvil considered dropping out of school. But after speaking with family and friends, Dorsainvil realized she wouldn’t be achieving the career goal she had shared with her parents since childhood: becoming an attorney.
The killer was never brought to justice, even though some Arcahaie residents suspected a man and knew where he had fled, Dorsainvil said. It gave the young woman more drive to help other people find justice.
“There didn’t appear to be a real system in place to bring the people who did this to my parents to justice,” Dorsainvil said. “I tried to think about a way I could do something meaningful in my career for the people who feel like they didn’t have a voice or weren’t heard.”
“I just said ok ‘What do I need to handle for now,’” Dorsainvil said. “I did it then it was, step by step by step until I got to the next level.”
Twenty-five years later, in February 2020, Maryland Governor Lawrence Hogan appointed Dorsainvil as a judge, saying that he has confidence she would be a strong advocate for the law. In her role, Dorsainvil hears cases about a variety of injustices, including landlord-tenant matters and domestic violence in the Prince George’s County District Court in Maryland.
“Their daughter is a judge now,” said Dorsainvil, now 45.
Pierre and Josephine Dorsainvil moved to New Cassel, Westbury during the 1970s, a lower-income neighborhood in Long Island where many Haitians live. Dorsainvil was the youngest of five children, including a twin sister Cynthia Dorsainvil. Dorsainvil’s parents worked at factories.
Her parents’ factory jobs didn’t fully support the household expenses, so at age 14, Dorsainvil started working at a local supermarket as a cashier to help out at home.
Even back then, young Dorsanivil set the bar high for herself. After watching Blair Underwood, the actor who played an attorney on “L.A. Law,” speak eloquently in the courtroom, Dorsainvil wanted to be just like him or even a judge. She told her siblings and parents.
“At no point in time did my parents ever have us doubt in our ability and dream small,” Dorsainvil said. “Anything we told them we wanted to do, they would just look us at and say ‘Of course, you’re going to do that.’ They knew it was possible and made us feel like it was possible.”
Dorsainvil graduated 11th at her Westbury High School and was accepted to Syracuse University, where she studied Law and Public Policy before transferring to Boston University.
It was just before this move that armed men ransacked her parents’ home in Haiti and shot them. Dorsainvil’s brother, Dr. Pierre Dorsainvil, was afraid his twin sisters would stop going to school.
“At that age you’re fragile,” Dr. Dorsainvil said. “From the very beginning, Dolores has been a go-getter. But there are times she couldn’t take it anymore, I had to tell her to just hang in there.”
She did, graduating first from Boston University, then American University Washington College of Law.
Living the dream
In 2000, Dorsainvil passed the District of Columbia Bar on her first attempt. Dorsainvil’s first job out of law school was with a small law firm in Maryland, Goldberg & Finnegan, handling personal injury, family law and defense matters.
Before her first cases, her knees would knock and she often felt like throwing up, Dorsainvil recalled. But when she looked up at the judges, they were poised and polished. She set the goal then of becoming a judge.
Dorsainvil first applied to become a judge in 2014 but didn’t get past the interview process, which in Maryland includes an interview with the governor and confirmation by the State Senate.
Later in 2016, she obtained a pivotal position that took her closer to her goal. Dorsainvil became an assistant disciplinary counsel with the D.C. Office Disciplinary Counsel, prosecuting other attorneys and appearing before the Court of Appeals during her four-year stint.
Dorsainvil applied to become a judge again in 2016 and wasn’t selected. When Dorsainvil applied in 2019, she was finally appointed the following year.
“I remember I sat down and looked around the courtroom and saw all these faces and said to myself ‘My God, I can’t believe it,”’ Dorsainvil said. “Something I’ve always dreamed of, I actually get to do. I’m making a difference in people’s lives every day.”
Her colleagues have commended her for taking the time to listen in the courtroom, something Dorsainvil prioritizes doing in her role.
“There are a lot of cases, some people might want to quickly go through them but she’s patient,” Judge Stacey Smith said. “She gives people the opportunity to be heard, which is what most people want when they come to a district court.”
As of 2018, members of the Haitian-American community in Maryland tallied up to about 12,000 people. Members of the community were thrilled when Dorsainvil was appointed.
The Association of Haitian Professionals based in Washington D.C., gave her the Professional Achievement award in March 2020 and she spoke at the Haitian Ladies Network annual Haitian Ladies Weekend last October.
Dorsainvil said she thinks Haitian-Americans in Maryland have more confidence in the Maryland justice system now because someone from their community is part of it.
Still, the ineptitude of the justice system in Haiti, which never brought her parents’ killer to justice, causes her unease after all the years. She has thought about helping, but it’s a daunting task.
“You do have a sense of hopelessness. People faced the same tragedy I faced. They don’t have that sense of justice at all,” Dorsainvil said. “The issues Haiti faces are immense, it’s not just the justice system, it’s also the executive branch, I don’t know how I could bring a change.”
Life outside the courtroom
Outside of work, Dorsainvil lives in Bowie, Maryland with her 4-year-old daughter.
Through her brother’s Dorsainvil Foundation, which provides healthcare services and information to residents in their parents’ hometown in Haiti, Dorsainvil travels to Haiti about twice a year in her role as president.
She also teaches Professional Responsibility at Georgetown University Law Center, a course on ethical obligations and duties of attorneys.
Dorsainvil’s twin sister, Cynthia, also went into law but doesn’t currently practice it. Cynthia is a senior associate at KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory firm.
“They didn’t disappoint us,” Dr. Dorsainvil said. “I’m the proudest brother you can find. I brag about them.”