LOCKPORT - Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon won't be allowed to hear criminal cases in the county for a year because her law clerk is the county's next district attorney, the state Office of Court Administration says.
Caroline A. Wojtaszek was elected DA without opposition Tuesday and will be sworn in Jan. 1 for a four-year term. For the past six years, Wojtaszek has been Sheldon's confidential law clerk, pre-trying criminal cases and helping to research decisions.
With Wojtaszek shifting to the prosecution, it creates a conflict of interests on all pending cases, according to state court spokesman Lucian Chalfen, citing an ethical opinion obtained within the court agency.
With Sheldon off criminal matters for all of 2017, her criminal caseload will be taken over by State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski, who normally holds court in Buffalo but will come to Lockport to hear cases.
"Either he'll stay or someone else will move over, depending on scheduling and logistics," Chalfen said.
Wojtaszek said that the cases she was involved in as a law clerk will have worked their way through the criminal justice system in a year. She said she doesn't expect to need to hire any special prosecutors to handle cases she reviewed as Sheldon's clerk, because she would have had access to the same information as DA that she would have had as a law clerk.
The ban on Sheldon applies to a year's worth of new crimes, too. "There's an ethics decision that says one year. It's specific to me being a law clerk," Wojtaszek said, saying the issue has come up before elsewhere in the state.
"Somebody who worked for you now is an advocate in front of you. Ethically, (Sheldon) is barred from hearing those cases. For the coming year, she will not be hearing criminal cases," Chalfen said.
In effect, there seems to be something of a statute of limitations on these conflicts. For example, no one is suggesting County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III can't hear criminal cases, even though when he was district attorney, he hired Wojtaszek as an assistant district attorney.
Sheldon will spend the next year working on civil and Surrogate's Court matters, Chalfen said. She also will continue to preside over Niagara County Veterans Court, which involves counseling and treatment for military veterans who have substance abuse or mental health issues that have contributed to them committing relatively minor offenses. The court, which Sheldon founded, meets on Thursday afternoons.
Murphy and State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr., whose court is located permanently in Lockport, also may pick up more of the county's criminal load.
Up until now, Sheldon was handling at least half of the county's felony docket, with Murphy and Kloch dividing the remainder, although Kloch had taken over all of the felony drunken driving cases as well as sharing other types of crimes.
Wojtaszek, a registered Democrat who ran with the endorsement of both major parties, was a prosecutor in Niagara County from 1998 to 2010, specializing in sex crime cases. But she handled other high-profile cases, including the 2002 murder of Jennifer M. Bolender, 16, of Niagara Falls, who was stabbed to death on an overpass above the LaSalle Expressway.
Two of the suspects pleaded guilty and testified against the third, Daniel W. Pardee. In that trial, Wojtaszek became the first woman to deliver a prosecution summation in a murder case in Niagara County. Pardee, now 33, is serving a sentence of 25 years to life in state prison.