Top 15 Movers & Shakers
#2. Joseph Zayas
Queens County Supreme Court
It wasn’t always a given that Judge Joseph Zayas was going to end up on the right side of the law. Growing up in the housing projects and on the streets of West Harlem isn’t typically how the first chapter of the story of a well-respected and successful man of the bench begins.
“In the event that this truly is a tale of two cities, I have been a part of those two cities,” says Judge Zayas. “Even to this day, I might find myself at my niece’s birthday party in the South Bronx, and the next night at a black-tie event at the Waldorf Astoria.”
Judge Zayas was raised in the Frederick Douglas Houses after his family moved to New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. He ran the streets and spent most of his days in high school enjoying his school’s generous perk of a DJ in the lunchroom through most of the midday, enjoying the atmosphere while his grades steadily slid.
That started to change his senior year. “I realized I was going to be a loser if I didn’t turn myself around,” he recalls.
He studied hard and eventually ended up at Fordham University’s College at Lincoln Center, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1985. In 1988, he graduated from Columbia University’s School of Law. To hear a humble Judge Zayas tell it, from there it was just a bunch of lucky breaks.
“The lord has blessed me with a lot of interesting career opportunities and fortune,” he said. “I feel like he has prepared me for this.”
As an attorney with The Legal Aid Society’s Capital Defense Unit, he found himself as the primary coordinating counsel in the People v. Darrel Harris, New York State’s first capital trial since the re-enactment of the death penalty under then-governor George Pataki. The death sentence of Darrel Harris was eventually vacated by the Court of Appeals.
In 2003, he was appointed a judge by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Several reappointments later, he now serves as Administrative Judge of Queens County Supreme Court, where over 3,000 indictments are filed each year before 25 justices.
In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he presides over felony trials and the county’s Youth Court, as well as the calendar of old cases.
Judge Zayas is also involved with the Latino Judges Association and Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County. In 2014, he received the “Trailblazer in Justice” award from Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Judge Zayas has lived in Queens for 23 years, currently residing in Little Neck, enjoying life with his three children, one grandchildren and high school sweetheart Catherine, who he met in the high school cafeteria when he should have been in class. “So it wasn’t a compete waste of time!” he jokes.
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