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As she reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the New York judiciary, Guyanese American Justice Claudia Daniels DePeyster says she was “happy to be working” during the lockdown.
Justice DePeyster, who describes herself as “a proud first-generation Guyanese-American” — born in Brooklyn to Guyanese immigrants — told Caribbean Life that she was also “happy to be doing something other than worrying about each day living in a pandemic.”
“Despite the shutdown, the New York City Criminal Courts continued operations,” said Justice DePeyster, who, recently, was appointed an acting Supreme Court Justice in Kings County (Brooklyn) Supreme Court-Criminal Term, where she presides over a felony Gun Part.
In April 2015, Justice DePeyster was appointed by former New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio to serve as a Criminal Court judge.
She sat in Kings County Criminal Court until early February 2022 and presided over the Youth Part for many years, helping young adults, age 17-24, to complete diversion programs in order to receive dismissal of their criminal cases.
Justice DePeyster also presided over a Trial Part in Kings County Criminal Court, where she conducted hearings and trials before and during the pandemic.
“Prior to the pandemic, we had hospital arraignments. This meant that defendants who were hospitalized, but needed to be arraigned on an arrest case, were arraigned from their hospital beds,” she said. “Their attorneys would be present with them in the hospital, and the judge and prosecutor would be in the courthouse doing the arraignment via live stream camera.
“This technology was enhanced during the pandemic, so that Skype, then later Microsoft Teams, could be utilized to do virtual criminal arraignments,” she added.
Justice DePeyster said she worked outside of the courthouse in the height of the pandemic, doing night court arraignments virtually – from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., Monday to Sunday, seven days a week, including holidays – or on “whatever days I was scheduled to work.”
She said other judges handled day court arraignments from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
“Since the courts were not open for in-person court appearances at the height of the pandemic, defendants charged with felony crimes also needed to have court appearances,” Justice DePeyster said. “Preliminary hearings were held, where incarcerated defendants were produced for court in-virtual proceedings.”
She said all parties appeared virtually, via Microsoft Teams, including witnesses, and that evidence was presented to determine whether there was legally sufficient evidence that the defendant committed a felony and should remain incarcerated; or there was insufficient evidence, and the defendant should be released.
“I conducted many of these proceedings,” Justice DePeyster said.
She said that, on or about June 2021, court personnel were directed to return to work, and that mask wearing and sanitizing the workplace were big concerns for her and other employees.
“Vaccinations were required in the courts, as was the requirement in city workplaces,” she said. “I was concerned about returning to work (in the office), as two sitting judges died from COVID.”
However, Justice DePeyster said she still believed that returning to work in the office “would be a start in getting things back to normalcy.
“Although it has been two years since the pandemic began, we are still working to get back to normal,” she said. “I can conduct criminal court hearings, and trials are in-person now. However, there are still virtual court appearances that I can do, via Microsoft Teams, from my courtroom.
“I believe virtual proceedings will continue to be a part of the criminal court landscape into the future,” she added. “For example, people are able to make virtual court appearances and still go to work, and not lose a day’s pay.”
A graduate of Midwood High School in Brooklyn, Justice DePeyster said she attended the University of Buffalo to obtain her undergraduate degree, and is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
She is an active member of the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, Brooklyn, where her pastor is the Rev. Dr. David Keith Brawley.
Justice DePeyster is also an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. for over 30 years. She currently serves on the Membership and Scholarship Committees of the Brooklyn Alumnae Chapter.
She is married, for over 25 years, to Christopher DePeyster, who also is American-born, but whose great grandfather was from Suriname, adjacent to Guyana. Though both countries are geographically in South America, they are part and parcel of the 14-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) grouping, and are culturally, socially and otherwise an integral part of the Caribbean.
Justice DePeyster has two daughters: Sulema, a graduate of the University of Connecticut-Storrs campus, who is a Community Historian at an Historical Society; and Sohaula, who holds a Master’s degree from New York University and is a licensed therapist in New York City.
Justice DePeyster is a board member of the Judicial Friends Association; and a member of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association, the National Bar Association—Judicial Committee, the National Association of Women Judges and the WBASNY Women Judges Committee, among other professional organizations.
She said her parents, Basil and Elaine Daniels, came to the United States in the 1950s.
“They each were adventurers in their own right,” Justice DePeyster said. “Not married yet, my father left Berbice in Guyana as a young man in his 20’s and traveled to several countries as a ship’s cook. He later landed in London, England, where he worked for years before coming to the United States.”
She said her mother came to New York from Guyana to pursue a career in fashion design.
“She had no family here and was sponsored by a family,” Justice DePeyster said. “She graduated from design school and dreamed of becoming a costume designer on Broadway.
“Unfortunately for her, there were no jobs for women of color at that time, or should I say, no jobs that my mother could find,” she added. “She eventually met my father. They married and began building a life together.”
Justice DePeyster said her father was entrepreneurial and bought real estate.
“The first home I remember was a three-family house,” she said. “He later purchased a one-family brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant and a one-family home in Crown Heights (both in Brooklyn).
“My parents sponsored family and friends from England and Guyana,” she added. “They lived at our house until they got on their feet and moved to their own apartments or homes.”
Justice DePeyster disclosed that her mother’s nine brothers and sisters also migrated to New York from Guyana, and that her mother, being the eldest child, took care of her siblings, particularly her eldest brother, Leslie Walton, “who she wanted to see achieve his dream” of becoming a medical doctor.
But Justice DePeyster said, while her childhood was “great,” she was “not so happy.”
“After my mother sponsored all of her brothers and sisters and her parents, and everyone was comfortably living in the United States, including her brother, the doctor, who had just relocated to North Carolina, my mother was tragically killed driving on her way to work by a teenage drunk driver,” she said.
“She was 36 years old; my father was 40 years old,” she added. “I was only eight years of age. I had two brothers, one was 16 and the other was 11 years old. To say the least, it was a rough time.
“I got in the bed with my father one night and, as he hugged me, he said, ‘I don’t know what we are going to do, but we will get through this together,’” Justice DePeyster continued. “He was right. “My father put my hair in a bun every day and, thank God, the children all attended Catholic school. So, we all had school uniforms, and what to wear was not an issue each morning.”
She said her brother, Maurice Daniels, also attended medical school and is a practicing pediatrician in New Jersey and Delaware.
An older brother, Gary Daniels, joined the Marine Corp and is now a banker in North Carolina.
Justice DePeyster said she is the youngest and only girl in the family, and that her mother “missed me graduating first in my class from elementary school, with honors from Midwood’s Medical Science Institute (I was pre-med until I decided to go to law school – that’s another story), college, law school, and my marriage and kids.
“However, I have a large, extended family, who made my vacations wonderful and enriched my life immensely,” she said, adding that her father was “a fabulous chef.”
Justice DePeyster said she cooks, “from my father’s tutelage, like any Guyanese boss lady,” the popular Guyanese dish, Pepperpot, particularly at Christmas, as well as curry chicken (called chicken curry in Guyana); pot roast; macaroni and cheese; oven-roasted chicken; and split pea soup, with dumplings.
“Be careful of what you say in the presence of children; they are listening,” warned Justice DePeyster before telling this story: “One of my earlier memories was right after my mother died. I sat on the floor in the kitchen, as Guyanese family and friends spoke.
“As if I was not in the room, one woman spoke and said words to the effect, ‘How could a girl child lose her mother? The father could die but not the mother. What will become of her?’ Some acknowledged her statement. Something inside of me said, ‘I will prove them wrong. I will be somebody,’” she added.
Regrettably, Justice DePeyster said her father “unexpectedly, without illness, at the ripe young age of 91, went home to glory” in the beginning of the pandemic, March 2021.
“I thank God for his life and his commitment to family,” she said. “Kudos Daddy, you did a great job. Rest in power!”