TOWN OF NIAGARA – After 40 years as a town justice, John P. Teixeira, 81, will hang up his black robe for good at the end of this year.
It means the younger town justices in Niagara County – which is to say, all of the county's 22 other town judges – will lose their unofficial mentor.
His caseload at Town of Niagara Court has risen sharply over the years; it ranks in the top 7 percent statewide, he said.
In 2016, defendants in his town court faced 6,157 charges, of which 1,023 were speeding tickets, thanks to Interstate 190 running through the town. In 1990, defendants faced 2,838 charges, with 1,200 being speeding tickets.
Teixeira's beginnings on the bench came before the Military Road commercial strip became a focal point for shoppers. Fashion Outlets has become a constant source of arrests for shoplifting.
Last year, Teixeira heard 197 petit larceny cases.
"They come from Niagara Falls. We get people out of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse," Teixeira said. "It's the biggest mall for miles around. It almost feels like there's a target on its back. Gangs of them come in."
But other crimes have become more serious, too. The 1990 tally shows one drug felony and one sex offense in the town. Last year, there were six sex felonies, 15 drug felonies and 60 drug misdemeanors.
"I see now young people getting arrested for felonies, which is pretty sad. You didn't have that back then," Teixeira said.
Getting on the bench
The Blizzard of '77 led Teixeira to the bench.
"It was a game-changer for me," Teixeira recalled of his coincidental meeting with other snowbound drivers in a Cambria farmhouse.
"I was stranded at Wasik's Curve," Teixeira said, using the common name for a bend on Route 31 in front of the Wasik family's farm. "Nobody could get home from Lockport, and the people I was stranded with were from the Board of Elections, ladies that worked in the office there."
Teixeira was with about 40 people who tried and failed to get through Route 31 in the blizzard and ended up stranded in local homes.
"They knew I was a town policeman. We got to talking and one of them said, 'You'd be a good judge. You're fair-minded.' Before you knew it, they'd talked me into it. I ran, and I've been doing it since," said Teixeira, a registered Democrat who had been a town constable for nine years.
He won the 1977 election, and was elected again every four years since then, only twice against an opponent. The salary at the time was $3,300 a year. Now, Teixeira earns about $26,000.
Making curfew calls
Teixeira often imposed a curfew on first-time offenders, as a condition of winning an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. He saw so many defendants from single-parent households who were getting out of the control of their parent, usually a mother.
"They'll listen to me, because I can put them in jail," Teixeira said.
So he set curfews with input from the parents.
"I'd take the phone number, and I'd tell them, 'I'm going to call you. You don't know when I'm going to call you, but you'd better be there to come to the phone,' " Teixeira said. "It worked out real well, but it got to be too much. It got to be where I was calling six, seven or eight people a night to check on them. I can't do it anymore. My calendar's so big now."
Teixeira gave up the curfew program about five years ago, but he's still willing to impose a curfew if parents request it.
Source of advice
Jury trials are a rarity in town courts. Teixeira said he's only had 10 to 15 of them in 40 years. In all other cases, he's the decision-maker.
"I have to do what I think is right," Teixeira said. "You need a good amount of common sense to do this job."
When Teixeira first took the bench, he instituted the first court office in Town Hall.
"The judges worked out of their houses. They kept their records in their garages," he recalled. "We modernized it."
He became a go-to source for others.
"He always has information to add, expertise to offer," said Royalton Justice Laura A. Wagner, president of the Niagara County Magistrates Association. "It certainly helped me when I became a town justice."
"Because of the nature of his court and the variety of cases that he gets and the volume he gets, he's a good source to go to," Cambria Justice Amel S. Jowdy Jr. said. "If you're from a smaller town and you get a kind of case you might see every three or four years, or you've never had it before, he's a good source to go to for advice or to ask questions about it."
"I feel good about my career," Teixeira said. "I was fortunate. I have a good reputation. The police departments knew I was firm but fair. I think I stuck with that."
Why stay on the bench so long?
"I enjoyed it," Teixeira said. "I figured I was still doing a job, and it kept me young. It kept me on top of things, and I've always been active in our community.
"But I figured if I ran again, I'd be 86 when I got done with the next term. I have six children. They want us to do things, visit them. They're all over the country."