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Leaving courtroom legacy of getting to the heart of case; Gorski, a firm conciliator, praised as masterly judge

For years, Justice Jerome C. Gorski did his best work outside the courtroom.

Having honed his negotiating skills as a labor lawyer, Gorski showed a knack for getting opposing sides to reach a settlement before a trial or jury verdict.

But as the 74-year-old Gorski concludes a 23-year judicial career this week, his thoughts were on a racially charged case that drew national attention to his courtroom.

The low-profile judge's strong point served him well in the high-profile Cynthia N. Wiggins wrongful-death case.

"The good thing is I got through it without brickbats being thrown by either side," Gorski said last week of that case's settlement in 1999. "I feel good about that."

The 17-year-old single mother was fatally injured after getting off a Metro Bus, struck by a dump truck while trying to cross Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga to reach her job at Walden Galleria. Her death led to protests that the mall discriminated against blacks by banning the Route 6 Metro Bus, an inner-city route, from the mall.

The late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., probably the nation's most famous lawyer at the time for helping gain the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on murder charges, joined Wiggins' legal team. He praised Gorski's handling of the case.

"[Gorski] also had respect for the local lawyers," said Buffalo attorney Terrence M. Connors, who represented the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in the case.

"I always marveled at his ability to take a complicated case and break it down to its most important components."

Gorski could quickly and accurately size up a case from both sides, and that's what made him "a very effective mediator," Connors said.

"That's been the key to his judicial tenure," he said. "No one gets to the heart of a case faster than Justice Gorski."

As in the Wiggins case, Gorski did not shy away from ruling decisively on motions.

The judge granted Connors' motion to dismiss punitive damages in the case, and that turned out to be a key to gaining a settlement, Connors said.

Gorski understates the praise he received for how he handled the case.

"All of the attorneys were wonderful, experienced and honorable people," Gorski said in his 10th-floor judge's chamber in the City Court building. "There weren't too many bumpy roads."

Cochran, in his 2002 biography, "A Lawyer's Life," wrote of his admiration for Gorski.

"We had a wonderful judge, one of the finest judges I have ever had in my career, named Jerome Gorski, who did everything possible to ensure that everyone received a fair trial," Cochran wrote.

Gorski strove for that in all his cases as a State Supreme Court trial judge from 1989 to 2001 and since 2001 as an appeals judge at the Appellate Division in Rochester, his colleagues say.

His appointment as an appeals judge was noteworthy for the fact then-Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, picked a Democrat for the position.

His appointment to the appellate bench also drew "a chorus of moans and groans from the trial lawyers who knew they were going to be losing one of the finest, kindest, smartest, most diligent and caring trial judges they had known," State Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister said.

"Because of the manner in which he conducted business, Judge Gorski was beloved by the attorneys during the 13 years he sat on the Supreme Court bench," Bannister said.

Before becoming a judge, Bannister worked as Gorski's law clerk for 20 years, including seven years in the Appellate Division.

The key to his success, she said, was his preparation.

She also cites the Wiggins case.

"He was able to settle a potentially explosive and racially sensitive matter," Bannister said.

Cochran and local attorney Robert H. Perk won $2.55 million for Wiggins' 4-year-old son, spread out over decades. Galleria owner Pyramid Cos. paid $2 million, the NFTA paid $300,000, and the owner of the truck that struck Wiggins paid $250,000.

The structured settlement, which included purchase of a $1.64 million annuity that will make lifetime payouts to the son, reportedly was estimated to be worth more than $20 million when spread out over the years.

In his book, Cochran described Gorski's role, recounting that on the trial's seventh day, the judge approached the lawyers.

"One afternoon he quietly told each side, 'If this little boy doesn't get his future secured, I'm going to be very upset.' Then he began nudging us toward a settlement.

"A really good judge can do that," Cochran wrote. "He can run a fair trial while making it clear to both sides that he wants a fair settlement. If one side or the other tries to play rough, he can be a little tougher in his rulings, a subtle way of letting them know he isn't satisfied. Judge Gorski did that."

Gorski, who by that time already had received the Outstanding Jurist Award from the Erie County Bar Association in 1998, won the association's 2000 Award of Merit for his handling of the Wiggins case.

The judge said he preferred settlements in which both sides walked away satisfied.

"A good settlement is better than a bad verdict," he said.

The Wiggins settlement "epitomizes how you can work it out," Gorski said.

After the Wiggins trial, Cochran signed the sketch artist's drawing of Gorski.

"Justice Gorski, you are indeed a judicial treasure," he wrote on the back.

Gorski, an Amherst resident, said he plans to work as a mediator after stepping down from the bench to "keep my hand in the law."

His last day as a judge was Tuesday.

Gorski could have served two more years as an appellate judge if he wished.

He enjoyed the job.

"There comes a time when you'd like to do something on your own terms," he said.

The voluminous caseloads kept him busy reviewing 100-plus cases every six weeks or so.

Now he can schedule his own calendar, which includes travel and mediation work, he said, adding: "I won't miss those files on the weekends."