Humble Justice

Swearing in of Syracuse’s new African-American judge

King Solomon of Israel and Italian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas were among the historical figures mentioned at a recent event held in the Common Council Chambers at Syracuse City Hall, which drew a crowd of over 100 residents.

Tasked by law with the decision to pick a replacement for Steve Dougherty, who resigned as City Court judge in November, Mayor Stephanie Miner chose Derrek Thomas. Previously, he was the city’s Director of Personnel and Labor Relations.

Speaking at Thomas’ swearing-in ceremony as new judge on Dec. 28, Miner said that a smart people are usually considered so because they are surrounded with talent.

“It’s an awesome responsibility for me as mayor to appoint judges for vacated positions,” Miner said. “I’m proud to appoint a person such as Derrek Thomas, who will do justice for our community, where many are born with two strikes against them. Derrek cares deeply about people, and brings accountability and a sense of justice to the bench.”

The function was bookended by an invocation and a benediction by Sharon Perry, an administrative assistant in the Department of Personnel.

She thanked God for “the gift of our city and the hands of Mayor Miner,” and then she asked Him, “Cover every person here with your divine presence and bless Derrek as You had blessed Solomon with prudence, knowledge and discernment.”

Bill Ryan, chief of staff for the City of Syracuse, served as master of ceremonies. He continued the uplifting paean to Thomas, combining formal remarks with some in a lighter note.

After saying that Thomas would be a welcomed addition to the rotation of the City Court basketball team, Ryan said: “The new judge is a gentleman who is a truly humble and dedicated civil servant. He reads everything, from newspapers to the Bible. He likes to meet people from every walk of life. He draws people from different backgrounds and makes them better.”

City Court Judge Mary Anne Doherty also shared her insights into Thomas’ personality.

She said: “I met Derrek when I was corporation counsel and he applied for a job at City Hall. He looked great in paper, so I arranged to interview him in person to confirm that. He was honest and thoughtful in his responses. He’s just a superstar. After we hired him, he has been very positive, and he loves working for the city. He will bring depth and dignity to the judicial bench.”

Finally, Thomas had the chance to address the audience, which included his family, friends, then current and future co-workers such as judges Vanessa Bogan, James Cecile and Theodore Limpert.

Thomas quoted philosopher Aquinas as having said in his book “Summa Theologica,” written between 1265 and 1274: “Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him.”

Another of the main influences in his life was more up-close-and-personal, seated right in front of him, next to his wife and children.

“I was raised by a mother who taught me to be fair and compassionate,” he said.

“Every man whom I have met was raised by a great mother,” Miner added. “This is the case with Derrek.”

After witnessing Thomas’ oath of office administered by the mayor, the public was invited to a celebratory reception at Maxwells bar in Hanover Square, a mere three blocks from City Hall. At the bar, Thomas, whose appointment was effective Jan. 1, granted his first media interview as sworn judge to this correspondent.

As to his specific goals, he said: “My plan is to reduce the number of people who are introduced to the city criminal justice system. As a judge, I intend to exude the values of fairness, compassion and justice, keeping in mind the need to balance them with the citizens’ right to have protection and a feeling of safety, including those living on the South Side.”

Asked to expand about what his appointment means for the South Side, Thomas went on to say that he can relate to this neighborhood both because of his volunteer work in Syracuse and his prior residence in Albany.

He added that he is familiar with situations on the South Side as he is a director on the board of the Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility (now marketed as Syracuse Community Connections), which operates the Southwest Community Center, and a director on the board of the Syracuse Housing Authority, which owns extensive properties, such as Pioneer Homes, in this section of the city.

“I can also speak from my experience growing up in Albany in a single-parent household and having many relatives requiring public assistance and living in public housing,” he added. “In this city, I went to an elementary and a middle school where there was a lot of trouble, plus the high school that I attended was not one of the best.”

Nonetheless, he graduated on time from high school, and went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees from State University of New York at Albany as well as a law degree from Albany Law School.

“Besides my mother, what made the difference for me when I was younger was having role models,” he said. “I saw other people succeeding in life, and I told myself, ‘They are not smarter than I am, so why can’t I succeed too.'”

“What the South Side youth need are role models. Everything is possible,” he concluded. “There is no limitation to what the young generation can do if they work hard in their classrooms.”




— Article by Miguel Balbuena, The Stand community correspondent