NYC Civil Court Judge Heela Capell displays empathy in and out of courtroom

Heela Capell
Civil Court Judge Heela Capell

Although raised in a close-knit orthodox Jewish community, Kings County Civil Court Judge Heela Capell knows first hand that domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse cuts across all socio-economic and cultural divides.

Growing up, she personally experienced and observed others suffer from the horrors of domestic violence, including a brother who died from a heroin overdose and other family members who suffered from mental illness, alcoholism and substance addiction.

And as the Domestic Violence Awareness Month of October draws to a close, she recently took time out of her busy schedule to address the issue with PoliticsNY and Schneps Media.

“In our community, women were reliant on men for most of their basic needs. It was the exception for a woman/mother to pursue a career. Tragically, domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse were entirely taboo subjects. But I knew from a young age that one day I would use my voice to transcend this narrow-mindedness,” Judge Capell said over lunch on Smith Street in Boerum Hill.

This passion to transcend the confines of her background and to help others led Judge Capell to attend Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where she was the editor of the law school newspaper and an editor on the Law Journal of International and Comparative Law.

After graduating from law school, Judge Capell pursued her passion to serve the public in the courtroom. It was during this time as a litigator, conducting landlord-tenant dispute proceedings, that she observed the challenges facing individuals struggling to navigate the legal system. She learned about their lives, livelihoods, hardships, and struggles, and how different each individual’s personal circumstances can be. This experience ultimately inspired her to pursue a career as a judge, striving to fight for what she genuinely believes in – justice and fairness.

After becoming a court attorney for Housing Court Judge Bruce E. Scheckowitz, Judge Capell was appointed to the Citywide Housing Court bench where she served until being elected to the Civil Court bench last year.

“Advocating for others became my passion and once I stepped into a courtroom I knew that I would never leave. After litigating cases for several years, I became intrigued with mastering various methods of resolving conflict,” said Judge Capell.

“As a judge, I am blessed to be able to use my voice, knowledge of the law, and connection to my fellow humans to de-escalate and resolve conflict. This made my experience as a Housing Court Judge particularly gratifying because I heard disputes between unrepresented litigants in high stakes cases,” she added.

Judge Capel said her background of growing up with domestic and substance abuse, and mental illness in her household also gives her a certain empathy that she brings into her courtroom.

“No matter who comes before me, I help them speak to each other, hear each other, and utilize a language they can all understand – which includes the expression and awareness of feelings – which is a word that, regrettably, is still taboo in the legal profession,” said Judge Capell.

“I try to connect to people as a person who may have experienced some of the pain they have endured. People might not, and probably do not, know my background before they come before me, but it helps me tremendously. Most importantly, I believe it helps the litigants to walk away from the courthouse feeling understood and valued. I certainly understand domestic violence survivors, wounds that cut deep, and attempts to put the pieces of one’s life back together after trauma.”

Judge Capell finished her lunch and excused herself with much to do. Between being a Civil Court Judge with a packed docket, a wife and a mother to two school-aged children, her life is busy, but she never forgets from whence she came.

“At root, I am dedicated to the application of equal justice, civil rights, and gender equality and helping people resolve conflict,” she said.