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 interest 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.
By the end of the year, all the old cases on which Wojtaszek worked presumably will have been resolved, but the bar applies to a year’s worth of new crimes, too.
“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.
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.
County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III 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 is allowed to take over as prosecutor of cases she might have pre-tried as a law clerk, Chalfen said, so it isn’t necessary to appoint a special prosecutor to handle all prosecutions.
“Should an issue arise with a case or cases, either from the defense bar or from the new district attorney, a motion can be made and then it will be addressed,” Chalfen said.
But there seems to be something of a statute of limitations on these conflicts. No one is suggesting Murphy can’t hear criminal cases, even though when he was district attorney, he hired Wojtaszek as an assistant district attorney.
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.
Wojtaszek declined to comment for this story.