MAYVILLE – Thursday will mark the last day on the bench for Chautauqua County Judge John T. Ward. His legal career spans more than 40 years from days as an attorney and then as a county prosecutor before becoming a judge.
He was admitted to the state bar in 1975 and went to work in the county District Attorney’s Office that year. He served as district attorney from 1978 to 1992 and became county judge in 1993.
His retirement comes a little sooner than some had predicted in the halls of the Gerace Office Building. He is 67 and could have retained his post for three more years until the mandatory retirement age of 70.
“I am not leaving for health reasons or anything like that,” Ward said. “Someone told me once that when the time comes for retirement, you will know.”
Ward said that after a spring vacation, he decided that he wanted more time to spend with his family and to travel.
The workload of County Court has increased dramatically since Ward started. He said that in recent years, the county trial calendar has had as many as 600 cases.
“When I started, there would be about 100 cases a year,” said, Ward, who attributes the increase to changes and improvements in police work.
“When I first prosecuted cases, you could look at blood evidence by type A, AB or O,” he said, adding that the DNA samples and testing involved now are increasingly accurate and can pinpoint a certain person with very little room for doubt.
The county courtroom has seen more major murder trials in recent years than ever before. In addition, Ward said, he has heard more cases involving drugs recently than ever before. “So many of the cases are about getting money for drugs or crimes of drug dealers,” he said.
Ward attributed the arrests in such cases to better police work.
From the standpoint of jurors, developments in computers, social media and even mapping have changed the instructions from the bench from simple to complicated, the judge said.
“We have to remind them not to look at Facebook, Google or any other type of social media during a trial and ask if they have read anything on these sites,” Ward said. “It makes jury selection more difficult and time-consuming.”
Among his colleagues in the legal system, Ward has had a reputation as a very hardworking and devoted public servant.
District Attorney David W. Foley said he appreciated Ward’s decision that it was time to retire.
“He has been serving the county’s legal system since the 1970s,” Foley said. The district attorney’s father was a prosecutor at the same time that Ward worked in the DA’s Office.
“As a young man, I always looked up to John Ward and his work ethic as a prosecutor and later as a judge,” Foley said.
The county Board of Elections will be able to list candidates on this November’s ballot to fill the vacancy created by Ward’s retirement. His current term would have ended in 2020.