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Henry G. Peters: Let’s continue to be a compassionate society

It has been my honor to serve in the court system for the past 21 years as a town justice. I must thank the residents of Cambria for allowing me to serve my community in this manner. I plan to retire at the end of my term in office.

Over the years, it has been my observation that 99 percent of the people who come through the system are just like you and me. Traffic infractions, small claims and minor criminal violations are what bring most individuals to the Justice Court. Most people show respect for the process because, even if they resent being there, it represents our support and respect for our democratic and legal systems. The law assists in providing structure and realistic expectations for our world and our culture. We are a nation of laws.

In the time I have served, I have seen a change in society that has been mostly for the better. You might not perceive this if you listen only to the national news and rhetoric. But I have found most people to be very positive and hopeful in their outlook on life. Hardworking people believe that in America, even if you stumble, you can still be successful.

It has become apparent to me that older people have a greater ability to express themselves with civility when discussing something adversarial with others. I am reminded of my father going to talk with the neighbors if there was a problem on the street.

Today many people come to the courts to address their concerns as a first step instead of talking to the other person. When in court, I ask them if they have discussed the issue with the other party. The answer is often no. When asked if they would step out into the hall to talk, eight out of 10 issues have been resolved by the time they return to the bench, or the folks agree to a neighborhood mediation process. It is not difficult to discuss something rationally and agree to disagree. Perhaps we need to relearn these skills.

It makes me feel great when parents come to court with their children. I always thank them for being there. One young man with a speeding ticket was in court with his father. He had a slip of paper listing every phone number of driver improvement programs in Western New York. The father said to me, “Whatever you decide is nothing compared to what his mother has already done.” With that kind of support, I am sure the boy will be successful.

The individuals who work in the legal system have my great appreciation for the roles they play and dedication they have to our democratic heritage. Attorneys, police officers and court officers are often disparaged in our discussions because we rarely understand what goes into their professional roles and boundaries. I thank them for all they do.

I am grateful to my fellow magistrates and mentors who have assisted me and helped me learn that making a decision about others requires careful thought.

I could share many stories of people who surprised me with their fortitude and resilience when faced with difficult situations that required them to change their lives, make difficult choices, face down bullies, admit their own defects and take responsibility for their actions. My hope is that we continue to be a compassionate society and nation.

As the Pledge of Allegiance says, “justice for all” is what we strive for in Cambria, in the state of New York and in America.