Diversity could be factor in filling judgeship - The Buffalo News

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Diversity could be factor in filling judgeship

When the U.S. Senate gets around to picking Buffalo’s next federal judge, the new jurist will join a bench that is all-male and largely white.

Will diversity be a factor in who gets picked for the $199,100-a-year lifetime appointment?

There is no shortage of women and African-American candidates, but like anyone who wants to be a federal judge in New York, they will need the blessing of Sen. Charles E. Schumer.

Fresh from a history-making appointment in Rochester – one of his nominees became the first female district judge there – Schumer has a similar opportunity here. And there’s already a pool of candidates.

“Who wouldn’t be interested?” said Federal Public Defender Marianne Mariano. “It would be a privilege to serve the community in that way.”

And Mariano isn’t alone.

If there’s a front runner, it is U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., a well-respected and ambitious prosecutor and the force behind many of the region’s high-profile criminal investigations.

One of the wild cards is Hochul’s wife, Kathleen, and her recent selection as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s running mate. Lawyers wonder if that helps or hurts her husband’s chances of becoming a judge.

Trini E. Ross, a prosecutor in Hochul’s office, also has been mentioned as a possible candidate. Both she and Hochul declined to comment.

Among attorneys who follow the selection process, lawyers such as Mariano, Hochul and Ross are three of the five names they frequently hear in connection with the judgeship. The others are Buffalo lawyer Lawrence J. Vilardo and State Supreme Court Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer.

“The opportunity to have a new district judge in Buffalo is long overdue,” said Rodney O. Personius, a former assistant U.S. attorney, “and the list of candidates provides a unique opportunity.”

There are others on that list, and it’s early enough in the process that a long-shot candidate might still emerge.

Mark G. Pearce, chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and a Buffalo native, has been mentioned. So have District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, State Supreme Court Justice Shirley Troutman and Buffalo City Judges E. Jeannette Ogden and Amy C. Martoche.

“I haven’t sought the position,” Troutman said last week, “But one can never foreclose opportunities that may come up down the road.”

Not all of the candidates are sitting judges or prominent public figures.

David R. Hayes, a law clerk for U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott, has submitted his name for consideration by the Senate. And Kathleen M. Sweet, a Buffalo attorney known for her work on medical malpractice cases, also has been mentioned as a candidate.

“It’s always been my dream,” said Hayes, a Yale Law School graduate, “and I think I’ve achieved enough experience and gravitas to move to the next step.”

A few lawyers suggested privately that Hayes’ boss might also be a candidate, but Scott dismissed the notion.

“I enjoy the job I’m in,” he said last week.

No one knows if Schumer has a favorite and, if he does, who it might be. Even more important, perhaps, his tapping of Elizabeth Wolford for the bench in Rochester last year has lawyers wondering of that’s a sign of things to come.

Will he recommend another woman, or is Wolford’s appointment it for now? She’s the first female district judge to ever serve in Western New York.

The search for a new judge began when Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny announced plans to move to “senior status” and cut back on his caseload.

Skretny’s move takes effect next March, and his goal is to have someone new on the bench by the time he leaves. He said the case-load here, one of the heaviest in the country, is his primary concern. “From my standpoint, that’s critical,” the judge said of the urgency in finding a successor. “We need the help.”

The process, however, is lengthy, complex and full of reviews, evaluations and vetting by, among others, the FBI.

In the end, Schumer – as the state’s senior senator – will recommend a candidate or candidates to President Obama, who in turn will nominate one of those candidates.

The Senate, which has a recent history of challenging judicial appointments, can confirm, reject or delay the president’s nomination.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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