By David Brand
When Queens Family Court Supervising Judge Carol Stokinger left Massachusetts to attend law school at Columbia, she planned on becoming a defense attorney.
“It sounds trite for people my age, but I wanted to be a defense lawyer, the female Perry Mason,” Stokinger said.
But a rare opportunity to work in Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office in the summer after her first year of law school reshaped her mission and defined her legal career.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be a defense lawyer, I might as well know how the other side operates,’” she said. “And I loved it. I realized that prosecutors have an obligation to not just advocate for a position, but to advocate for people [and] there really is a justice component to it. I spent a summer there and I ended up loving it.”
After Stokinger graduated from law school in 1977, she returned to the Manhattan D.A.’s office, where she remained until former Mayor Rudy Guiliani appointed her to the Family Court bench in 2000 — Morgenthau remained D.A. for another nine years.
In July 2009, Stokinger was appointed Supervising Judge of Queens County Family Court, the position she continues to hold today.
During her time in the D.A.’s office, she served as deputy chief of the Trial Bureau, headed the Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Bureau. Her tenure coincided with significant changes in the way the police, prosecutors and broader society treated domestic violence and child abuse.
The NYPD instituted a must-arrest policy for certain crimes related to domestic violence, which took the discretion away from individual officers and the state enabled cases to proceed in both family court and criminal court instead of one or the other.
“There were more domestic violence police officers who making sure people were OK,” she said. “There was a recognition that it was really dangerous, there were mandatory arrests and then [state] legislation followed that.”
In the last few years, courtrooms have also evolved, she said.
“Family court has gone digital and we were the first one to do it in 2012,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing not to see files and papers flying around the courtroom.”
Stokinger said she and many judges have embraced the changes, including video conferencing, which makes for a more efficient court experience, allows incarcerated family members to appear in court and enables the court system to better serve non-English speakers.
“In Queens, we have an extraordinary need for interpreters and if someone comes into the courtroom we may not have interpreter on staff,” she said. “But our staff good at finding interpreters and using technology to deal with people if we didn’t have notice they’d be coming in . . . technology has improved things.”
That willingness to adapt to changes serves a judge well, particularly in a place as diverse and rapidly-growing as Queens.
In addition to her open-mindedness and commitment to justice, Stokinger said her experience as a prosecutor informs her perspective as a judge.
“Coming from being a prosecutor, where you have to be fair and open-minded from the beginning, made it easier to transition to the bench,” she said. “You have to be fair and open-minded to both sides.”
Nevertheless, she said most judges, no matter which side they represented as attorneys, make a successful transition.
“[Judges] realize you don’t represent anyone,” she said. “You’re there to give people a fair trial, give people the opportunity to be heard in court and to apply the law.”
Stokinger, who has two adult children, said parenthood also influenced her perspective.
“I have kids and [that] helped me be realistic about what happens in families,” she said. “You can’t extrapolate your own family onto other families because each family is different, but it gives you a pragmatic sense of how things go.”
“The goal is not to find the ideal family,” she continued. “It’s to make sure children are safe in their families.”