When County Executive Allan Kittleman’s office called District Court Judge Ricardo Zwaig recently to ask if he if would accept the county’s first Hispanic Leadership Award, Zwaig said his only response was “of course.”
Zwaig told the story with a smile, calling the award a “great honor.” More than a personal celebration, he said the award is a recognition of the growth and accomplishment of the Hispanic community in the county, something that makes him even more proud.
“Even though it is a great personal honor to me, the more important thing is the recognition by our county executive to see the achievements of the Hispanic community as real, as furthering the goals of our county,” Zwaig said. “Recognizing our community as being worthy of recognition. That to me means more than anything else.”
The award, presented as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, was created by Kittleman to celebrate the work of an individual in the county who positively impacts the Hispanic community through their work and ambition. Kittleman said the award is an example of the efforts his administration has made to reach out to and include all communities throughout the county in civic life.
When looking for someone to receive the Hispanic Leadership Award, Kittleman said Zwaig was the first person to come to mind. Kittleman served on the Executive Nominations Committee in the Maryland State Senate at the time of Zwaig’s appointment to the District Court, and said he’s enjoyed getting to follow his career in the county.
“I hear from so many people their respect and admiration for him. People who have been down at the bottom of their lives, he has helped them get back together again,” Kittleman said. “It made perfect sense for him to be the first [award winner].”
The Hispanic population in the county has more than doubled in the last several years, increasing from approximately 7,400 individuals in 2000 to more than 16,000 in 2010, according to U.S. Census data. As of 2016, it was estimated that the Hispanic community made up 6.6 percent of the county population.
Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Zwaig, 64, immigrated to the United States with his family in 1963. Zwaig has lived in the county since 1994, and his three children graduated from Centennial High School.
He brings more than three decades of experience to the courtroom, which he said he “fell in love with” beginning with his first position as an assistant public defender in Maryland’s District Court.
Zwaig said he would like to think it’s “no accident” the Hispanic community is receiving greater recognition in the county now. He said an award like this is “much needed” for many people in the Hispanic community who live in fear.
“The fact that the highest member of our political community has stood up and said, ‘You know, Howard County’s going to recognize this,’ there’s no obligation, our county executive took it upon himself to do so,” Zwaig said. “It is basically saying ‘You’re a part of who we are.’ There’s an embracing factor also that ought to be lauded. I’m certainly going to bring that to the floor to the extent that I can.”
Zwaig is no stranger to being the “first.” In 2010 he was appointed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley to the 10th District Court, becoming the state’s first Hispanic male judge and the first Hispanic judge in Howard County.
He currently presides over the county’s Adult Drug and DUI Court, which he said is the toughest docket he’s worked with, because for many of the people before him, it’s a matter of “life and death.” Zwaig’s court is one of only a few thousand problem-solving style courts in the country, which he said brings a team approach, rather than a more typical “adversarial” style, to helping people reform their lives.
Despite the challenges it presents, Zwaig said this is also some of his favorite work because it allows him to interact with the most number of people who come through the judicial system.
“I get a chance to hear people bring forth their problems. And so much of it in the District Court is just being heard,” Zwaig said. “My thing is try to be respectful, give people the time that they need.”
Originally a public defender before going into private practice with his brother Michael, where they often represented people who were Hispanic, Zwaig said he was drawn to the legal profession by a desire to work on civil rights issues, and make more people’s voices heard.
“And the thing that was constantly tugging at me was civil rights issues. Freedom of speech issues, things along those lines,” he said. “I went to school for that purpose, to develop that voice that I kept on hearing in my own head.”
Zwaig’s passion for helping others is part of what makes him an excellent jurist, said Howard County District Administrative Judge Pamila Brown, who said she was “thrilled” when she learned he had won the county award. Brown said Zwaig and his approach to his work should serve as a role model to not only the Hispanic community, but individuals across the county.
The establishment of the award is a sign of the county’s progressive nature, Brown said, and the desire to showcase the diversity of the area.
“He is exceedingly compassionate, he really cares about the individuals that are in front of him,” Brown said. “He really ultimately wants them to succeed. He’s fair, but tough when needed. I really think he has a genuine love of the individuals and the work that he does.”
Beyond his work in the courtroom, Zwaig said he tries to make himself available as a mentor to young people in the county who might want to work in the legal system or other fields. He also works with the school system on events such as the annual mock congressional trials for fifth-graders and the Continuing the Legacy program at Wilde Lake High School, which brings legal professionals together with students.
Zwaig advises young people across the county to “make yourself heard.”
“There’s a spillover effect of the greatness of the individual. Whenever you’re trying to achieve something, think of it in the sense of what’s the best you can possibly do. And if you see an obstacle in the road, treat it as a challenge, a way to overcome it, not as a stopping force,” Zwaig said. “The will to live, the will to express yourself, to make your voice heard, is so much within all of us.”