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Chautauqua County hungers for a native state Supreme Court justice

The resignation of John A. Michalek will create a second election for State Supreme Court this November, posing a dilemma for party leaders looking to support a rare candidate from Chautauqua County.

Democrats appear to be coalescing around Grace M. Hanlon, a former prosecutor and current confidential law clerk to a Chautauqua County Judge David W. Foley.

But few judicial candidates from counties other than Erie or Niagara in the eight county Eighth Judicial District have been successful in recent years because of their smaller voter bases, and at least one insider noted local party leaders seem reluctant to guarantee a Chautauqua candidate through the “cross-endorsement” process following Michalek’s resignation and guilty plea to bribery charges in June.

Political observers also point to the confidence of local Democrats in a presidential election year when turnout is heavy in the judicial district with a Democratic enrollment advantage.

But no Supreme Court justice has been elected from Chautauqua since Joseph Gerace in 1991, despite the regular assignment of a full time judge to the Mayville courthouse, Chautauqua County Democratic Chairman Norman P. Green noted. Even local Republicans support the idea of a Chautauqua County candidate from any party gaining the nod from Erie County’s powerful Republican and Democratic leaders, he said.

“Good government says that because we have a full-time office we should have a full-time judge,” Green said. “The issue is how do we get a judge elected from Chautauqua County?”

While many in the legal community criticize the cross-endorsement process because it empowers party leaders and disenfranchises voters, Green said it remains the only way candidates from outlying counties can compete against Erie County opponents.

“It is impossible for a rural lawyer from Chautauqua County to demonstrate his or her merit and it is even more impossible for a local rural lawyer to be noticed regularly by the Buffalo media,” he wrote in a February op-ed for The Buffalo News. “It’s just a fact that Erie County is where the political power and voter might is for making a lawyer a Supreme Court judge.”

No cross-endorsement appears likely this year, sources close to the situation say, even though agreements between Erie County’s Democratic and Republican leaders have guaranteed the election of more than half of the district’s Supreme Court justices over the past two decades.

Gerace ascended to the bench from Chautauqua County in 1991 as a result of an agreement between Erie County’s Democratic and Republican party chairmen.

The Michalek resignation also paves the way for the entrance of Daniel J. Furlong, confidential law clerk to Justice Joseph R. Glownia. His expected GOP candidacy also proves unusual because he is a Democrat who has unsuccessfully sought his party’s nod over the past several years.

Furlong said he is now in the process of signing up with the Conservative Party, which usually wields significant influence in judicial nominations outside the cross-endorsement process. Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo said he is unaware of Furlong joining his party, but added he would be welcome.

Furlong was a Democratic candidate in 2014 and among five Democrats solicited by both Democrats and Republicans to contribute $4,000 for campaign literature aimed at the Independence Party primary. As part of New York’s Byzantine system, Democratic and Republican leaders often seek to control not only their own parties, but minor parties like Independence as well.

And especially in the Democratic Party that year, judicial hopefuls without a prayer of snaring the nod of the chairman were asked for the money to be “part of the team,” according to several of the candidates. Even some Democrats aware they had no chance at nomination told The News without attribution that they felt obliged to pay for Independence mailings to demonstrate Democratic Party loyalty for future consideration.

Furlong said his relations with Democratic officials remain friendly but were proving unfruitful. As a result, he is becoming a Conservative and expects GOP backing too.

“I was not going to be endorsed by the Democrats,” he said in explaining his party switch.

For several months, two other candidates have been making the rounds in preparation for gaining the expected nominations of their parties. Orchard Park Town Justice Lynn Wessel Keane, the Democrat, and Mary L. Slisz, a Republican, are expected to gain the approval of their judicial nominating conventions for the seat of Glownia, who is unable to run again after reaching the age of 70.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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