Maryland's fast-growing Hispanic population is about to have its first male representative in judicial robes, as Governor Martin O'Malley has chosen of defense lawyer Ricardo D. Zwaig for a Howard County District Court judgeship.
There are two female Hispanic judges and O'Malley named Audrey Creighton, a third, for a Montgomery County District Court judgeship along with Zwaig.
"I feel proud I've been selected," said Zwaig, 57, the father of three. "It speaks very clearly to the community," he said about his selection. "Governor O'Malley understands the need to be inclusive and broaden the face of the court."
Zwaig, who practices with his younger brother Michael at offices in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood and Ellicott City, is a former state and federal public defender who has applied twice before to be a circuit judge. He withdrew his application in 2005 and was passed over in 2007. Now he is to replace the retired Judge Alice P. Clark as soon as he can wind up his private practice and schedule his swearing in. His practice is mostly criminal defense, personal injury, and immigration plus some civil work, he said.
He is eager to be a judge because "I've been committed to community service forever," he said, adding that he likes dealing with people rather than doing administrative jobs. "My kids say to me, 'Dad, you know everybody. You talk to everybody.' I really enjoy talking to people.".
Though Zwaig has previously applied for circuit Court positions, he is looking forward to District Court.
"District Court is pretty much the face of the judiciary" to the vast majority of people, he said, and although cases in traffic court may seem routine and repetitive, "every single person who comes to court on every single case believes that case is important," and so does he. The judgeship pays $127,252.
Zwaig's Baltimore office is on Eastern Ave. in the midst of the Hispanic community and he often defends Hispanics, sometimes pro bono. Perhaps his highest profile criminal case, which was not pro bono, was his defense of Lazara Arellano de Hogue, the woman convicted in 2007 of driving her pickup truck into a woman walking her three-year old grandson, Elijah Cozart, in a stroller across Goucher Boulevard in Dec. 2006. De Hogue drove away, dragging the little boy for a mile to his death before crashing. She got a 10-year prison term. It was a "terrible" case" Zwaig said this week.
A native of Argentina, he moved to the Baltimore area at age 10, he said, when his family came north to join European cousins who had survived the Holocaust in a concentration camp during World War II. He attended what was then Milford Mill High School in Baltimore County and then graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 1977. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1982, passing the bar the following year.
Zwaig worked as a state public defender until 1990, and then became a federal public defender before taking an administrative federal court job he quickly began to dislike. In 2002 he returned to the courtroom in private practice with his brother.
Lawyer Jason Shapiro, who headed the Howard County judicial selection panel that forwarded four names to the Governor, said Zwaig "has fantastic experience and a wonderful demeanor and would make an outstanding judge."
Mayda Colo'n Tsaknis, the 1993 founder and first president of the Maryland Hispanic Bar Association, said there were few Hispanic applicants for judgeships over the years, but believes it is important to have the courts begin to mirror society more accurately. "when I started [in 1977], there were no Hispanics in private practice," she said. That has changed, with about 200 members of the association now, but the judiciary has moved much more slowly.
Judicial selection commissions that send nominations to the governor "were not ready" for years to recommend Hispanics, she said.
State planning figures show the Hispanic population grew faster than any other group in Maryland during each of the last five years through July, 2009, and they now make up about 7.7 percent of the state's population — nearly doubling their numbers since 2000.
Colo'n Tsaknis said she has known Zwaig for more than two decades and feels he'll make a great judge.
"I find him extremely, extremely competent, with a wonderful personality. He's fair, He listens, and when you are in some kind of debate over issues, he's able to keep his cool. What I like most is that I know Ricardo is going to treat all who come before him in the same manner," she said.
Howard District judge Neil David Axel, one of four current Howard district judges and a veteran of more than 13 years in the job, said he's known Zwaig for years as a defense attorney. He too is confident of Zwaig's ability to bring his life experiences to the bench, but also to adapt to his new role.
He's going to be a wonderful addition to this bench," Axel said.