From ESL student to presiding justice | Our American Dream

Rolando Acosta is a presiding justice in the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division. Did he ever imagine he would one day walk into that courtroom every day?

"Never in my wildest dreams," he told Fox 5.

It might have been a wild dream back then but it sure is a reality today.

"So for an immigrant like me who only dreamed about being a lawyer and being a part of the process of delivering justice in New York State, it's a dream come true," Acosta said.

In May 2017, the governor appointed him the presiding justice of the First Department, which covers Manhattan and the Bronx.

"There had never been an immigrant—someone in my position—aspiring to be the presiding justice of a court like this court," he said.

Acosta was born in the Dominican Republic. When he was 14, he and his family arrived in the South Bronx.

"We got to New York and it was very scary," he said. "The strange language, different language, different culture, different way of viewing the world."

Acosta said he knew he wanted to succeed and the way to do so was to help his family first.

"Helping my parents in a dress factory, where they did piecework ironing clothes," he said. "And then high school working at a supermarket."

He was an ESL student but quickly moved to honors English and graduated fourth in a class of more than a thousand students. It was time for college and Acosta knew he wanted to help others. 

"There was very little social service infrastructure to help us acclimatize to the United States," he said. "I felt a responsibility to do that—to build it."

He said he believes that law is really how you make a difference in a society.

"Law was the field for me and so I did that right out of high school," Acosta said.

He is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia University School of Law, from which he graduated in 1982.

"I started my career at the Legal Aid Society Civil Division, the very same office in the South Bronx that helped my parents when we were burned out of an apartment," he said.

Acosta was at the Legal Aid Society Civil Division for six years as a staff attorney and later supervisor. In May 1988, he joined Mayor Ed Koch's administration as deputy commissioner for civil rights law enforcement. Later, Mayor David Dinkins appointed him to the Human Rights Commission.

In November 1997, he was elected New York City Civil Court judge. Acosta served on the Civil Court until the early 2000s. In 2002, he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court and in January 2008 he was appointed to the Appellate Division, First Department.

Today, he is the first immigrant to be the presiding justice of the First Department.

"To be the first immigrant to preside over it, it's an incredible thing," Acosta said. "For a kid from the Dominican Republic who always dreamed of this great land, the rule of law, being a judge is the ultimate the culmination of that dream."

Does he feel like he has accomplished the American dream?

"I did achieve the American dream," Acosta said. "But what's beautiful about the American dream is that it not only changes your life, but changes a life of a community, but it changes lives of future generations."