Victoria Gumbs-Moore knows the weight of the historic milestone she will now carry with her.
As the first black elected Family Court judge in Suffolk County and the first black female elected to any countywide office, Gumbs-Moore is ready to take on the responsibility of the precedent she is setting.
“I am very aware of whose shoulders I stand on,” she said Monday, in her official "robing" ceremony at Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center in Central Islip. She cited pioneering black judges such as Marquette Floyd, who became the first black Suffolk District Court judge in 1969 and 20 years later Suffolk’s first black State Supreme Court justice. “I know that one day someone will stand on my shoulders, and I am committed to being solid ground.”
Gumbs-Moore, 49, received her law degree from Touro in 2000 and serves on its board of governors. She had worked as a court attorney referee and principal law clerk in Suffolk’s family court since January 2016. The court in Central Islip covers a lot of territory, from custody and visitation cases to juvenile delinquents, orders of protection and abuse and neglect cases.
Gumbs-Moore said in an interview that she understands the significance of her role.
“I want to be a judge who rules with compassion and sensibility,” she said. “I’m just trying to make families whole again.”
The Wheatley Heights resident said there are only a handful of black judges at any level in the county. It’s something Gumbs-Moore has been tracking for years through the Amistad Long Island Black Bar Association, which she helped found in 1996 and for which she was once president.
“I’ve always been a proponent of the bench reflecting the population it serves,” she said, noting that having a judge of color can be comforting to those who have never had a courtroom experience and may feel scared or intimidated.
“It’s similar to when you’re in school and you have a teacher who looks like you. . . knowing there’s someone there who either has a similar background to you or knows about your background can only be helpful.”
Gumbs-Moore said it can be difficult for black attorneys to reach the judgeship level because even if they are qualified, they need the “three-legged stool”: legal knowledge and experience; a relationship with and the respect of the bar association; and influence with a political party. She said Amistad is helping educate attorneys about this process.
“You can never open the door if you don’t have the key or even know where to look for the key,” she said.
Eugene Burnett, a longtime civil rights activist, was Gumbs-Moore’s neighbor when she was growing up in Wheatley Heights. Burnett, 91, said that his “soul is happy” to see her achievement but that work remains to be done.
“The judiciary in Suffolk County is not where it should be in terms of representation of minorities,” he said. “But this is a first step in the right direction.”
WITNESSES TO HISTORY
Supporters traveled from as far away as Nevada on Monday to celebrate Victoria Gumbs-Moore’s milestone. Here are some of their comments at a reception following the robing ceremony:
“You are building a legacy that will allow other people to feel that they can also step up.”
— The Hon. Derrick Robinson, Acting Suffolk County Court judge
“We should rejoice that it’s Victoria, but we should not be rejoicing that in the year of 2019 that she was the first [black judge] ever elected to Family Court when there’s so many families of color under pressure here in New York and Suffolk County.”
— The Hon. Fern Fisher, retired justice, New York State Supreme Court