William M. Skretny’s humble beginnings, work ethic and devotion to the law is a big part of what made him such a good choice to be chief federal judge. Now that he has announced his decision to step down – but not out – we can reflect on a job well done.
Skretny, 69, recently announced his decision to take “senior judge status,” which allows him to reduce his caseload but continue serving as a judge in the U.S. District Court. The community should be grateful that a man who has served so well and honorably has decided not to step completely away from the bench.
Skretny has described his decision, which takes effect next March, as “bittersweet.” The statement reflects the humility that has been noted throughout the years by lawyers who have agreed with and as well as by those who have opposed his decisions.
After becoming a federal judge in 1990, Skretny said, “I am absolutely awestruck.” The sincerity of his sentiment was no surprise. Back then, friends described him as a bright, caring family man who carefully evaluates every case before making a decision.
His working-class background as the son of a Buffalo sanitation worker and his experiences attending Howard University Law School would serve him well in cases involving the poor and people of all races.
Skretny graduated from Bishop Timon High School and Canisius College. He nearly became a priest and spent one year in a Franciscan seminary before deciding to become a lawyer.
In 1967, the man who would become the first Polish-American federal judge here put himself in what most would consider an uncomfortable situation for the time. He won an unusual scholarship to attend Howard University Law School in Washington, where he was one of a handful of whites accepted to integrate the nearly all-black school. He described it in a 1990 Buffalo News interview as “a tremendous learning experience that I will never forget.”
The ability to understand where people of all backgrounds are coming from makes for the sort of judicial balance we need on the court. The job of chief judge is a difficult one, and Skretny has had his share of tough and even heart-wrenching cases, including the aftermath of the crash of Flight 3407, the Tonawanda Coke pollution case, numerous casino issues and, hardest of all for a dedicated family man, child pornography cases. He has handled his duties with aplomb.
And then there is the $137 million courthouse on Niagara Square that he and U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara worked on side-by-side for 15 years to make a reality. Not only did they work tirelessly to push the often-stalled courthouse project through all sorts of delays, disappointments and victories, they drilled down to the fine details, from the curve of the building to scrutinizing the Vermont Verde marble that would be used in some of the courtrooms. The result is a 10-story courthouse finished in 2011 with a sleek, modern design that fits beautifully into the downtown landscape.
Meanwhile, a man who by all rights could retire into the sunset after a quarter-century on the bench – and with his full salary – has instead chosen to become a senior judge. The result is that the community will continue to benefit from his dedication.