There has been a changing of the guard in Town Court, with the retirement of longtime Judge George R. Berger and the appointment of his former court clerk, Mary A. Canfield, as his replacement.
Berger, 65, joined the bench in January 1998 and resigned earlier this month with plans to move to Phoenix, where he and his wife, Ruth, have purchased a home near their son, George. A retired state trooper, Berger currently works in security at the federal courthouse in Buffalo.
He hired Canfield as his first court clerk, a part-time position. Canfield later became court clerk for Town Justice Robert J. Botzer, a position she has held for the past five years. In addition, after working 13 years as a part-time school nurse in the Wilson School District, Canfield is now the full-time nurse in Thomas Marks Elementary School.
The Town Board appointed Canfield to fill Berger's term for the remaining year. She intends to run for a full, four-year term in the November election. The position pays $15,225 per year.
"I don't think the Town Board could have made a better choice than Mary," Berger said. "This is a perfect fit for her. She was always curious enough to read everything that came in, and she'd look up anything she hadn't seen before. She has the aptitude and interest for the job. I expect she'll do a great job."
Canfield, a Wilson native, received a nursing degree from Niagara County Community College. She and her husband, Kirk, a fruit and vegetable farmer, live on Daniels Road and are the parents of two sons, Matthew and Paul.
She is one of only a handful of female judges in Niagara County.
"I think you have to be fair and unbiased," Canfield said, "but I don't know that women are any more so than men. You can only deal with what you have in front of you as a judge, regardless of what that person was like as a child in school, for example. You can't prejudge people. You have to hear all of the facts and make your decision based on what's in front of you."
Berger agreed this may be one of the biggest challenges for a small-town judge, where everyone knows everyone else.
"I found that I had to completely divorce myself from everything else and consider only what was brought before me, not what I saw or knew from outside the bench," Berger said. "It's not always a case of guilt or innocence, but rather, what can be proven."
Berger said that probably half of the cases he presided over involved traffic violations, but the most difficult were "the civil cases -- Small Claims Court -- where two people disagree and it's emotionally charged."
He said the Wilson High School hazing case was the most difficult one he handled. On July 6, 2009, Berger dismissed the criminal case against high school baseball coaches Thomas J. Baia and William M. Atlas after Niagara County Assistant District Attorney Robert Zucco -- with no explanation -- moved to drop child endangerment charges against the coaches.
Three former players were charged with roughing up younger players on April 17, 2008, on the bus as it returned to Wilson from a game in Niagara Falls, with Baia and Atlas on board. One player, age 19, pleaded guilty to child endangerment charges and was sentenced in private as a youthful offender. He did not receive jail time, according to lawyers involved in the case, but they would not say what punishment was given. Berger acquitted the other two players, each 17 when they were charged, after a four-day nonjury trial.
"It was the only one that kept me up at night," Berger said. "I'd have trouble sleeping and get up in the middle of the night and go on the computer to do more research.
"People asked me why I didn't recuse myself from that case and I said, 'I didn't take this job only for the easy cases. You have to take the difficult ones, too.' And I don't think it would have been any easier for any other judge."
Berger was born in Niagara Falls and attended Wilson schools, DeSales High School in Lockport and Newfane High School, before following his brother to Los Angeles, where he graduated from high school.
After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he returned to the area and joined the State Police, receiving his associate's degree in criminal justice from Genesee Community College.
In addition to their son, Berger and his wife have a daughter, Sally Sklar.
Berger made an unsuccessful bid for Niagara County sheriff in 1993. He was appointed to the Wilson Town Board in 1994, serving until December 1997, following his election as town justice. He ran undefeated for three more terms on the bench.
"The most enjoyable part of the job was performing weddings," he said. "I probably had about a dozen or so a year."
Canfield said of Berger, "I think he's done an excellent job, and he's served his community well."