The candidates for Erie County Family Court judge and one contested State Supreme Court seat are closely matched in terms of qualifications, abilities and -- as extensive consultations with the legal community revealed -- courtroom and personal reputations. We found only a slight edge in each race, and believe any of these candidates could serve well in the judgeships they seek.
State Supreme Court: Paula Feroleto
The edge in this State Supreme Court contest goes to Democratic attorney Paula Feroleto because of her much more extensive experience in civil litigation, which is the bedrock category of cases for this court level. Feroleto, who lost her previous race for a State Supreme Court post by fewer than 5,000 votes last November, was the first female president of the Western New York Trial Lawyers Association and has been a law clerk, associate attorney and partner in a law firm.
She has represented both defendants and plaintiffs in cases ranging from medical malpractices and matrimonials to vehicle and product liability, gaining legal honors in the process. As the Voluntary Lawyers Project coordinator for Brown & Kelly, she led that law firm to an award for providing free legal representation in tax, Medicaid and family law cases. She also is a state and local Bar Association lecturer on civil litigation practices.
Her Republican opponent, Town of Tonawanda Justice Frank Caruso, already is a sitting judge whose experience includes nine years as an elected town justice and fill-in work as an acting Buffalo City Court judge when needed.
In legal practice almost as long as Feroleto, Caruso is a universally admired and liked jurist who has an exceptionally calm and professional demeanor. He has chaired the Erie County Bar Association's Practice and Procedures Committee, and is active in the community.
But his bench experience in both the town and city courts involves mostly criminal cases, and although there are State Supreme Court courtrooms that handle such law, the primary purpose of this court is civil litigation. This is a close contest, but on the basis of specific experience, we recommend a vote for Feroleto.
Erie County Family Court: Deborah Haendiges
Erie County Family Court offers another contest of almost equally qualified opponents, this time pitting an incumbent judge against a previous one seeking a return to her former job. We recommend a vote for the incumbent, Deborah Haendiges.
Haendiges, the Republican nominee, was a family law attorney for 13 years before she was appointed last May by Gov. George Pataki to fill a vacant Family Court judgeship. Her performance in that judgeship has been highly praised by judges and lawyers, some of whom described her work as outstanding. Several also cited her warmth and her concern for those whose domestic difficulties lead them into trials and hearings that are often charged with emotion.
As an attorney, Haendiges was involved in training law guardians and lecturing in continuing legal education programs, and chaired the Bar's Practices and Procedures Committee. As a judge, she now handles visitation, child support and abuse and neglect cases.
Former judge Margaret Olszewski Szczur, who won the Democratic nomination, served a 10-year term as Family Court judge. She finished fourth in a four-way race for two judgeships when she sought re-election last year. She subsequently was appointed as a court attorney referee for Family Court.
During her term as judge, Szczur created a successful Family Treatment Court to deal with families in crisis, especially when alcohol or drug abuse was involved. She also specialized in child neglect and abuse cases. Although she ruffled some legal feathers on occasion, she earned a reputation for efficiency and, if elected, she would be the second most-experienced judge on a relatively new Family Court.
Efficiency is important to the management of overtaxed courtrooms, but Family Court is a special case. Although it, too, suffers from huge time burdens -- custody or visitation cases alone generate some 240 petitions per week, for example -- it is a court of extreme stress and damaged lives. Both judges have shown they can do the job, but Haendiges seems more likely to deal effectively with the emotional wounds as well as the legal disputes. That earns her our endorsement.