As she grew, the harsh circumstances created by her ethnicity and environment caused young Marilyn to become gripped by two intertwined feelings. The first, she says, was to rebut the illogic: “I had this very strong and innate sense that I’m not lesser than, but I’m also not more than … which then means that you’re not lesser than, or more than. So that’s how I see everyone. I meet people for who they are. They’re not lesser than, they’re not more than — they’re just who they are, right?”
The second takeaway was a sober recognition that she must leave her unproductive environment in order to flourish. Because she saw college as the key to unlock that door, she enrolled at City College of New York. And because she understood her own affinity for the rigors of complicated and structured thinking, she studied electrical engineering at first before eventually graduating with a degree in computer science. Degree in hand, she followed an exciting career opportunity to Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati as an IT manager (“Wow! You can’t get any more ‘white-collar worker’ than that!” she exclaims, recalling middle school).
This doesn’t suggest the specific sort of gray matter one might expect to find adjudicating appellate cases, but it reflects how Judge Zayas processes information, which she turns to the court’s advantage as few of her peers can. “I break down a lot of my cases into flow charts, which come from my computer days. You get to see the connections of everything, and to see if something is missing.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also admits to always being able to handle complexity more easily than simplicity. She calls it her “engineering brain” and illustrates through the old “forest for the trees” analogy. “I’m pretty good at seeing both the forest and the trees, but really I’m about seeing the moss growing under the trees, and recognizing why the moss is on one side of the trees and not the other.”
It’s a good thing she relishes complexity and detail. The First District Court of Appeals receives civil and criminal cases from all trial courts in Hamilton County — domestic relations, foreclosures, contract issues, insurance claims, wills, adoptions, car accidents, murders and more. Anytime a case has been decided by a lower court and someone feels something went wrong, an appeal sends the case to the appellate court (69 judges statewide). When cases reach Judge Zayas, they will be greeted by a dispassionate, fact-driven perspective free of pre-judgment or bias. It’s the very conscious antithesis of the judge’s youthful recollections of East Harlem.
“It’s not about getting caught up in the emotions of the case; it’s about getting caught up in the law,” she says. “I don’t come to a case thinking, ‘This is what the answer should be, or this is the rule of law I would like to create.’ Rather, let me and my team do research — and I think people would be shocked at the amount of time we spend doing research. Let us review the record, go through transcripts and exhibits and motions that were filed, and make sure we leave no stone unturned.”