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For Justice Green, a career of trailblazing; As appellate judge retires after 38 years, memories go back to a junior high election

Senior Appellate Justice Samuel L. Green broke a barrier in 1978, gaining the most votes in eight Western New York counties to win election to State Supreme Court, becoming the first black elected to the position outside New York City.

But as the 76-year-old Green concludes a 38-year judicial career this week, his thoughts were on what could have been an impressive election decades earlier -- in junior high school.

Green was the only black in his class, sometimes the only one in his Kenmore school, after moving to the area from Alabama as a child.

When he ran for class president, he campaigned against a friend who also played quarterback for the school's football team.

"We had the vote, and I lost," Green said last week.

It wasn't until 50 years afterward that Green learned he had actually won the most votes from his junior high classmates. That was his first encounter -- but certainly not the last -- with politics.

Green tells of the revelation without bitterness, a hallmark of his personality that has won over friends and admirers in classrooms, courtrooms and polling places.

A decade ago, his opponent in that school race showed up at the courthouse and asked to speak with Green.

At the time, Green had been a judge for 27 years, including 17 years on the State Appellate Division in Rochester.

Green had been in the news because then-Gov. George E. Pataki promoted someone else -- a judge for three years -- to be the presiding justice of the Appellate Division, one of the highest posts in the state court system.

Some perceived it as a snub to Green, although even Green explained it as a conservative Republican governor passing over a "liberal Democrat" for the job.

The childhood friend had learned about Green being passed over for the position, and after catching up with the judge, brought it up during the courthouse visit.

"He said, 'It's a shame the governor didn't give you the presiding justice spot,' " Green said.

And then the friend brought up something shameful from the past -- how the student election had been stolen from Green.

Green's friend recounted how a student vote counter had approached him after the vote to tell him he was to become student president.

"He said to me, 'She came in and told me I was the president but Sam won the election,' " Green said.

Although Green had won the most votes from students, those who monitored the election -- including a faculty member -- announced the other candidate as the winner.

"They would not let me become president of the class," Green said.

While Green did not get to serve as class president, the school election showed the personal skills and intellect he used even at an early age to befriend others from another race to win their respect and support.

So to his friends and admirers, it's no surprise Green went on to win judicial elections to become the most-honored African-American judge in Western New York history.

Former Erie County Democratic Chairman Joseph F. Crangle calls Green's State Supreme Court victory "historic."

In 1983, then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo appointed Green to the Appellate Division, making him the first black judge outside New York City named to a mid-level appellate court.

"He has people skills," said Buffalo City Judge James A.W. McLeod, who served as Green's first law clerk. "Judge Green did not come from privilege and pomp. He came up through the streets. Everything he earned, he earned through abilities."

His experiences growing up -- both good and painful -- helped make him a great trial lawyer, defending some of the more notorious clients of the day, McLeod said.

And his skills helped him deal with lawyers and litigants as a judge, whether presiding over misdemeanor cases in City Court or complex malpractice suits in State Supreme Court.

Green's nearly 29 years of service in the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in Rochester -- which hears appeals on judicial rulings from judges in 22 counties in Western and Central New York -- make him the longest-serving justice in that court's history.

Eight times as an appellate judge, Green dissented from the majority opinion and then saw his position vindicated when the state Court of Appeals overturned the majority's ruling.

On Green's last day on the bench earlier this month, his colleagues at the appellate court surprised him with an honor: They renamed Courtroom 1 in the M. Dolores Denman Courthouse the Hon. Samuel L. Green Courtroom.

"Being the longest-sitting associate justice -- certainly in the Fourth Department and I believe in the State of New York -- it was appropriate to name the courtroom after him," said Henry J. Scudder, the appellate court's presiding justice. "Everyone agrees it is well-deserved."

In 1988, Green served on a blue-ribbon panel that examined how the court system could improve its hiring and treatment of minorities.

"It has meant a lot," Green said of that panel's work.

Green said that only one minority -- a clerk in the Traffic Division -- was on the court system's local payroll when he started as a city judge in the early 1970s.

Today, about 60 minorities are employed as law clerks, court officers or in other jobs, he said.

"How would you feel walking into a courtroom and no one looked like you?" Green asked. "That's the way it was for 90 percent of minorities."

"We would not be where we are today without Sam Green," said Joseph M. Hanna, president of the Minority Bar Association of Western New York, particularly how the judge stressed to young lawyers the importance of learning their craft and preparing themselves for jobs.

Green has accomplished "great things" in his career after overcoming many obstacles, Scudder said.

Scudder called him "a most respected member of the legal community -- statewide."

"It seems no matter where I go, lawyers and judges know and love Sam Green," Scudder wrote in a published tribute put out by the appellate court. "His life story is amazing."

"When you're a minority, there's an abundance of obstacles," Green told The Buffalo News last week.

He treated them as challenges to overcome, not to sulk over.

"If you dwell on it, you lose," Green said.

Green began his judicial career in Buffalo City Court, where he was first appointed to serve in 1973 before winning election to the bench. He gave up his $150,000-a-year legal practice for a $30,000 judgeship.

But as a defense lawyer, he witnessed how poorly some minority defendants were treated.

"I saw what was happening, and I didn't like it," he said. "Once I became a judge, I didn't have to go along with it."

He still calls the City Court judgeship his best job.

"I was able to immediately see results from my actions," he said. "I could tell defendants to go back to school or to get a job or to get into a program. I was able to help people. It's why I decided to become a judge."

He quickly learned to tell the difference between a hardened criminal who will understand nothing but a jail cell and a young offender hovering on the edge, whose life can be righted by a judge's enlightened decision.

Green said he tried to help young people turn their lives in the right direction without sending them to jail.

He also used the bench as a bully pulpit. He denounced "black rip-off films glorifying sordid aspects" of city life, as chairman of a task force on prostitution in 1975. His work on the task force led to a CBS News interview as he began to build his reputation.

He criticized police for arresting women for prostitution without also arresting men for patronizing them.

After winning his State Supreme Court seat, Green reflected in 1979 on the significance of the election.

"It was a great thing for all of us, a great thing for Western New York, the state and for all of the United States," he said. "But it was an even greater thing for the NAACP. The association goes back to the early 1900s when the goal was to advance 'colored people' so a little Alabama boy can stand up and be a judge in New York."

email: plakamp@buffnews.com