Passing the gavel
Maggie Castinado, JD ’98, elected first Hispanic president of the Connecticut Bar Association
November 11, 2023
November 11, 2023
"It said I should be a lawyer,” she recalled. "I thought, no way. That could never happen.” She was raised in a small town in Nebraska by parents of modest means. Law school seemed out of reach.
After high school, she moved to Colorado and pursued a degree in social work at Colorado State University, but the lawyer idea languished in the back of her mind. "I really didn’t believe I could do it,” she said.
Today, Castinado is a senior assistant public defender at the Office of the Public Defender in New Haven. She has defended thousands of clients with criminal matters since 1999, first in the Bridgeport office before moving to the Elm City location.
As further proof that she was destined for a legal career, Castinado became the 100th president and first Hispanic person to lead the Connecticut Bar Association in June — an impressive progression from what she describes as humble beginnings.
Before ascending to the presidency, Castinado served as CBA’s treasurer and then vice president. Castinado, who goes by Maggie, recently reflected on those turning points that guided her to a law degree. One came during an internship with the Office of Adult Probation in Colorado while she was earning her BS degree.
"I knew I wanted to help people, and I did a lot of volunteer work to see where my niche might be,” she said.
She enjoyed her work and supervisor so much in the adult probation office that she stayed there for three years. Meanwhile, that law school idea in the back of her mind began creeping toward the front.
While in college, she was summoned to jury duty and chosen for a case involving two Black men being tried at the same time. She was the only person of color on the jury. Man A (for purposes of this article) was represented by private counsel and Man B by a public defender.
"The evidence against Man A was overwhelming, but Man B’s only tie to the other was that they were seen talking to each other at a dog racing track located in a mostly white community where the incident happened,” she said.
Man A had placed a bet on one of the races, but the electronic rabbit the dogs chase malfunctioned, invalidating the result. "The man went to the cashier window, and they told him the race was forfeited, so he reached in and grabbed some money," she said, explaining that Man B, who had been seen talking to Man A before the race, was arrested as well.
"I was the only one who voted not guilty for that second guy with the public defender." The rest of the jurors saw her logic and voted to acquit Man B.
"I thought to myself that Man B could easily have been my brother, and because my family would not have had the money to hire a lawyer, he could be doing time right now for a crime he did not commit," she said.
That was the day Castinado decided she would become a public defender.
"In those days, public defenders were sometimes called public pretenders — not considered real lawyers — so I wanted to be the antithesis of that and make sure clients got a fair shake in the criminal justice system."
She attended a few law school recruitment fairs and chose Quinnipiac to see a different part of the country. Her class of 1998 marks its 25th reunion this year. "As difficult as it was, I met lifelong friends and attribute much of my success to the law school," she said, adding that staff and faculty were supportive, providing her with employment on campus all three years and later hiring her as an alumni recruiter.
Early in her career, Castinado was involved in the CBA’s Young Lawyers Section. She and a colleague created and cochaired a diversity committee within it. When she "aged out" of YSL, she became involved with the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association and served as its president from 2015-16.
"Around that time, there was a scathing article in the Law Tribune about a lack of diversity in the CBA, and I was contacted by members of its executive committee. I collaborated with others to change that and bring in newer blood," she said. She co-chaired a diversity committee and is resuming that role during her presidency.
Castinado serves on the boards of Statewide Legal Services, New Haven Legal Assistance Association and the Hispanic Bar Association, but one of her favorite volunteer activities is coaching participants in a law camp for New Haven area teens.
"It really gives them a taste of being an attorney and seeing that it’s something they could do. The biggest first step we can take is just supporting them and encouraging them," she said with a smile.
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