Two young lawyers wait to hear about Buffalo's long-vacant federal judgeship - The Buffalo News
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Two young lawyers wait to hear about Buffalo's long-vacant federal judgeship

If Neil Gorsuch is any indication, Donald Trump is looking for youth in his federal court appointments.

In Buffalo, home to a judicial vacancy now two years old, the two Republican attorneys seeking the lifetime appointment fit the profile.

Amy Habib Rittling, an employment attorney and a partner at Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman, is 48 and, if nominated and confirmed, would be Buffalo's first female district court judge.

"I think it would be a great accomplishment, a great achievement for Western New York and Amy if we could have a woman on the bench," said former State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, one of Habib Rittling's law partners.

Several sources close to the selection process said Habib Rittling is viewed, at this point, as the front runner and the one most likely to garner the support of the local Republican leaders who will advise Trump on whom to pick for the $205,100 a year post.

Habib Rittling declined to comment but her interest in the job is well known, and her status as a candidate improved when Clarence Town Justice Michael B. Powers withdrew his name from consideration last week.

The competition also features another town justice, this one from Lancaster. Elected in 2014, Jeremy A. Colby is also a former Erie County attorney and a partner at Webster Szanyi.

Colby, 42, served as a law clerk to former U.S. District Judge John T. Elfvin and his tenure as county attorney was under then-County Executive Chris Collins, who many expect to have a say in whom Trump nominates for judge. Collins, elected to Congress in 2012, was the first member of the House to endorse Trump.

"I would be honored to serve as a federal judge," Colby said in a prepared statement. "Having actually clerked for a federal judge where I drafted decisions, I can hit the ground running,"

Until recently, the competition for judge also included Powers, a well-known Buffalo lawyer and vice-chairman of the local Republican Party in the 1990s.

He withdrew his name from consideration for federal judge and U.S. attorney, another vacancy, and pointed to his longtime involvement with Clarence's drug court as one of the reasons.

Powers, who was re-elected town justice last year, was instrumental in getting the court started nine years ago and, for the first time, lost one of its "kids" to a heroin fentanyl overdose last month.

"It really brought it home," Powers said of the young man's death. "This is life or death every day."

Powers said the prospect of returning to a "24-7" type of job – he recently retired from Phillips Lytle – also played a factor in his decision.

Powers' departure leaves Habib Rittling and Colby as the two announced Republican candidates in a selection process dotted with wild cards.

One of them is Trump, who reportedly favors younger nominees but could pick someone other than Colby or Habib Rittling. Politico recently reported that the White House counsel’s office is interviewing "lawyers in their late 30s and early 40s" for judgeships.

Obama nominates Kathleen Sweet for federal judgeship

The other complication is that both of New York's senators, two officeholders who historically made the call on federal court vacancies, are Democrats.

Even more important, perhaps, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer is a former member of the Judiciary Committee and was the driving force behind former President Barack Obama's nomination of Buffalo attorney Kathleen Sweet for the same vacancy.

Sweet, a civil attorney and former Erie County Bar Association president, was nominated in March of last year and made it through the Judiciary Committee unopposed. Her appointment stalled after Trump's election and never made it to the full Senate for a vote.

"Sen. Schumer continues to support her candidacy," said Jason Kaplan, a spokesman for Schumer. "He believes that Kathleen Sweet, a talented lawyer who has a deep commitment to Buffalo, a city where she was born and raised, would still be an outstanding nominee."

Trump's election casts doubt on Senate OK of Sweet as judge

Despite now being in the minority, Schumer has an option: the Senate's "blue slip" veto, an on-again, off-again practice that allows the two senators from a nominee's home state to effectively reject their nomination. The practice often hinges on the willingness of the Judiciary Committee chairman, in this case a Republican, to allow its use.

So far, the current Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, has indicated that he will respect home-state senators' wishes on judicial nominations. If that were to continue, Trump would have to consult with Schumer and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and make sure they don't object to Trump's nominee for the Western New York judgeship.

Even though New York lacks a Republican senator, the White House is expected to look to three local Republicans for advice: Collins, the Clarence congressman, Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy and Buffalo businessman Carl P. Paladino.

The three were early Trump supporters but, at this point, it's not clear whom they might back for judge.

Michael A. Kracker, deputy chief of staff for Collins, declined to comment on which candidate, if any, the congressman might support, but indicated Collins is eager to fill the vacancy and is working with the White House with that goal in mind.

In Vacco, a former state attorney general and U.S. attorney, Habib Rittling has an influential supporter. Born and raised here, she is a graduate of Boston College and the University at Buffalo Law School and spent part of her career with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

She is also known for her volunteer work on behalf of Women and Children's Hospital of Buffalo, the Buffalo Zoo and the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

"Her desire to be a federal district judge is just another manifestation of her desire to make her community better," Vacco said of Habib Rittling, who declined comment.

Colby, who served as county attorney under Collins, had expressed interest in the U.S. attorney vacancy but is now focusing on the judgeship left open when U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny moved to senior status in March of 2015.

The Niagara University and Boston University Law School graduate is also portraying himself as a candidate with extensive federal experience.

"Since my practice for the past decade has been about 85 percent in federal court, my experience will enable me to immediately reduce the backlog in the Western District of New York," he said in his statement.

Colby's reference is to the civil caseload in Buffalo federal court and statistics showing it takes more than five years for the median civil case to go to trial here.

Experts attribute the delays to a shortage of district court judges. U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo is the only full-time active district judge in Buffalo.

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