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BENCH MARK
WITH HER LEGAL KNOWLEDGE, COMPASSION AND HANDS-ON APPROACH, JUDGE DONNA SIWEK IS MAKING DIVORCE QUICKER AND LESS PAINFUL FOR THOUSANDS OF ERIE COUNTY COUPLES

It may sound weird, but local attorneys and judges want you to know: If you happen to be divorcing right now in Erie County, you're actually rather lucky. You're going to have a somewhat unusual judge oversee your case.

To understand how unusual, you have to know what happened to that judge, Donna Siwek, in January on the first day of her new job:

Upon realizing that one lawyer wasn't going to show up, Siwek walked to the courtroom railing and called out a litigant's name. In the back row, slumped in the hard plastic chairs, a man glanced up. "Yeah?"

"Could you come here for a minute, please?" Siwek asked.

"Who are you?" said the man, warily eyeing the short, slight blond woman with the friendly face.

"I'm Donna Siwek," she said. Blank expression. No recognition. Siwek tried again: "I'm the judge presiding over your case."

The record will reflect that the aforementioned chair was swiftly vacated.

Now, how does this illustrate your relative luck to be divorcing this year? Because unless your divorce case is Byzantine in its complexity and must go to trial, it -- and you -- will wind up in front of Siwek, who is the State Supreme Court justice presiding over all Expedited Matrimonial matters through December.

And even though Siwek may appear so girl-next-doorish as to be mistaken for an office temp (at 39 is the youngest State Supreme Court judge ever elected in Western New York), she is becoming known as one of the most efficient yet compassionate judges ever to handle these fast-track cases.

Not only will you meet with her, you will likely get to talk to her, ask her questions, perhaps vent a bit, and possibly even share a quick parenting story while your attorney fumbles for a working pen.

And then, you will most likely work things out and reach a settlement.

Fact: In her second week on the bench, Siwek settled 44 divorce cases -- a court record.

"I can believe that," says Joseph Shifflet, a veteran law clerk who works for State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Howe. "Donna is a very hard-working individual. Perseverance and, frankly, just simple willingness to stay around (the court) that day until everyone is taken care of, is very important."

This is not to say that no other judge has been dedicated or as concerned. It is to say that due to her youth, seven years of experience as a law clerk and personal way of reaching out to litigants and attorneys, some in local legal circles think Siwek could wind up being one of its best jurists, if she can keep up this pace and her hands-on approach.

"I'd be very surprised if she doesn't turn out to be one of the better judges up there," says longtime Buffalo marital and family-law attorney Steve Wiseman. "I think she's gonna be a star."

Siwek, however, grimaces a bit to hear that.

"I don't want the license plate, I don't want the parking space. I don't even like wearing that big robe unless it's really necessary," she says. "I mean..." She holds out her arms to illustrate how quickly her 5-foot-2-inch frame disappears inside the billowing black vestments of the court.

"I just want to get out of bed and come to work and do my job. I really feel for these people. (Divorcing) is probably the hardest thing they'll ever do. The day I don't feel emotional about (these cases) anymore, I'll get out."

A way to speed the healing

How Siwek managed to become the youngest State Supreme Court judge elected in the Eighth Judicial District is a tale all its own.

Suffice it to say that hopes for her victory were so strong that even some self-described "apolitical" types were elated to hear on Election Night that the clerk they had always found so accessible and eager to have couples work things out would now be a judge settling these cases.

"We jumped for joy when we found out," says local marital and family law attorney, Michael Simon.

Even State Supreme Court Justice Kevin M. Dillon, whose Democratic roots stretch back generations, calls himself a strong supporter.

"She has exceptional people skills," says Dillon. "It can get very intense in (the hearing room), people can get unreasonable. Donna is the farthest thing from having led a sheltered life, and she gets what they're going through. She lets them talk to her and often, after that, they're ready to settle. It's amazing."

Siwek, however, is quick to point out that she is merely being effective in an already effective system -- one that was overhauled just a few years ago when it seemed ready to collapse under the weight of the number of divorces being sought each year in Erie County.

Divorces that few judges wanted to go near.

"Matrimonials," says State Supreme Court Justice John F. O'Donnell, "are the cases no judges like or want. A lot of them will do just about anything to avoid matrimonials. My father (former Surrogate and State Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. O'Donnell) was one of them," he admits with a chuckle. "He'd take forever to resolve them, hoping it would work out."

But it rarely did. And by the mid '90s, close to 3,000 divorces were clogging the system, each needing an average of one to three years to settle. Frustrated by the backlog, Vincent E. Doyle, administrative judge of the Eighth Judicial District, suggested doing for matrimonials what had been done elsewhere with criminal cases: screen them and weed out the ones ready to be resolved.

Working with veteran State Supreme Court Matrimonial Referee Rosalie M. Stoll Bailey, Doyle let couples who had accepted that their marriage was over except for the details, work out those issues with their lawyers and Bailey. If they agreed on a settlement within 10 days of negotiations, a judge would be provided to approve their divorce, and the parties would be free to go their separate ways.

No trial. No delays. No monstrous legal bill eating up the money that might be better spent on the children routinely left bewildered by the divorce.

"It speeds the healing," says Siwek, "because the longer you're locked in litigation, the further away you are from healing."

Doyle put the Expedited Matrimonials branch into effect halfway through 1996. By the time 1997 had ended, the numbers from the program's first full year were impressive:

Of the 3,454 cases sent to the Expedited Matrimonials part, only 307 wound up being sent to a trial judge for more work or a trial.

That was O'Donnell's year, and he remains impressed with the program.

"Once people get to (Expedited Matrimonials), they're ready; they just need a mechanism that can put them through the system in a fairly expeditious way. They don't want to say bad things about each other. They don't want a trial." O'Donnell was followed by Judge Barbara Howe in 1998, who was given 4,086 cases and resolved all but 468; Judge Patrick H. NeMoyer in 1999, who got 4,359 cases and resolved all but 419; and Judge Joseph G. Makowski in 2000, who got a staggering 5,006 divorces and resolved all but 341, according to figures from Doyle's office.

Siwek is well on her way to a similar record.

'Hey, this could be me'

But what makes her different, observers say, is that she brings to the program two important realities:

One is a blank calendar, containing no other civil, criminal or matrimonial cases needing her attention and presence through dozens of motions and hearings.

That matters because with nothing to do but settle marriage dissolutions, attorneys have Siwek all to themselves, and with the number of divorces being sought in Erie County each year now exceeding 5,000, they need every minute they can get with her.

"She's not afraid to tell someone they're wrong, or being unrealistic," says attorney Kathy Bestine, who handles divorces and family-law matters. "She's not afraid to call in experts. She's not afraid to make decisions or to simply let the husband and wife talk. I am not advocating divorce, but if you have to do it, with her in there, you lucked out. This is your year."

The other reality Siwek brings to the fast-track divorce part is generational empathy.

"I think it matters that Donna is the age of lots of the people coming through that court," says Ken Olena, a 20-year veteran of local divorce wars. "She brings a sense of 'Hey, this could be me' to it."

Bestine agrees. "This woman has not lived in a bubble. She grew up when I did in the late '60s and early '70s when it was starting to be a not-so-perfect world anymore. We have parents who divorced, our friends came from divorced homes. Donna's kids go to day care. Single parents are everywhere. She gets it, believe me."

Siwek nods emphatically when that perspective is offered.

"I sometimes look at what's considered the norm for visitation proposals, and I think, this could be our kids. I go home and say to (my husband), 'God, would you be OK with just every other weekend with Conor and Emma? Would you be OK with one night a week to see them?'

"Thinking that way and talking to these people instead of just to their lawyers helps me try to be more creative in coming up with ways to keep these families in each others' lives."

Some closest to Siwek, however, wonder whether she can keep up her pace and effectiveness.

One judge's law clerk, who asked not to be named, puts it this way: "This is common for new judges, to really get in there. And it's good she's doing it. We're blessed. But the test of time will be whether she's still like this five or six years from now."

If she is, but to what effect on her?

Her husband, Tim McEvoy, a vice president with M&T Bank, is among those wondering. He can see when she is preoccupied with cases she previously had only to research and advise on. And the cases where children wind up in the cross-fire bother her most, he says.

"That's when she gets concerned. When the parents start using (the kids) as pawns," he says.

A runner who in 1999 completed the U.S. Marine Corps Challenge of 26.2 miles, Siwek is used to feeling the burn in her legs and lungs. Now she is feeling another, less familiar burn: the spiritual one that comes from witnessing so much emotion, knowing she must be the one to resolve it, one way or another.

"My first day, I'd tried to settle something like 25 cases, and I walked out of there thinking, 'God, can I do this?' "

Says Mahoney: "This may be her problem, eventually. Donna likes to settle. She likes resolve. She is just starting to experience what a judge has to do when a couple gets intractable. It can be like hitting a stone wall."

Dillon says he dreads his colleague's first full-on custody battle.

"Those were the hardest things I ever had to do. And I think, knowing her, she may find them just as hard."

He is right, Siwek says.

"Already, it's different," she reflects at the close of her first month. "It's still the honeymoon phase for me. I still wake up and can't wait to get here. But I had no idea some of these decisions would be this hard."

Siwek heads out every day, rain, sleet or snow, to jog with other attorneys around the city and try to get some distance between herself and the painful choices waiting for her back at court.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

"When I drive home now, I see these faces in my head. Before, I did the research, wrote an opinion or just talked to Judge Mahoney about the cases and it was up to him what to do. But now it's me. It's me delivering the news. It's very heavy."

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