The first question that they asked me was, ‘As a rather diminutive woman, how do you think you would control a courtroom?’ I answered that I thought it had to do with knowledge of the law, treatment of the clients, being the most prepared person in the courtroom.
When she was voted to the bench at 38, Laura Safer Espinoza was the youngest civil court judge to be elected in New York State.
“The first day I was setting up my books on the bench, I had yet to put on the robe and an older defense attorney entered the courtroom and approached and said, ‘Miss, do you think you could run along and let the judge know that we’re here and ready for the trial?’ So I didn’t say anything, I did go in the back, make a couple of phone calls, take a few minutes to rest and then went out with the robe on. And his face was priceless.”
Not only was she younger and female – with children 3 and 5 years old – Espinoza had some different ideas as well. She was promoted from civil court to superior. Noticing how many of the people who stood before her accused of crimes had mental illness and/or substance abuse problems, she became the first treatment court judge in Bronx County. Under the program, offenders pleaded guilty and went to mental health or alcohol/drug treatment instead of jail. It’s no longer a new idea, and statistics are proving that it’s effective.
Espinoza retired from her position as a New York State Supreme Court Justice in 2010 and moved with her husband to Sarasota. She offered to volunteer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their efforts to improve pay and working conditions for field workers just as the Fair Food Standards Council was organizing locally. Her skills and background fit her right into the driver’s seat of that new advocacy group, which in just a few years has facilitated $10 million paid to farmworkers by retailers and earned praise from the White House and the United Nations.