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 quality of life

Judges often impose community service on others.

Now it's time to figure out how well they serve the community.

That comes to mind after acting State Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Walker allowed the crime-ridden Broadway Mart deli to reopen, even though city officials say they denied it a license because of problems with drugs, gangs and associated mayhem. That license denial occurred even before police recently raided the store at 1069 Broadway in a sting of delis accused of dealing in stolen goods.

Despite all of that, when deli lawyers ran to court, the store was allowed to resume business as usual.

Judges often can get away with seeming to ignore the community's needs in such cases because it's also "business as usual" come election time: They have long terms; voters have short memories.

My suggestion: It's time for community groups to start keeping track of cases and publicly rating judges from the community's perspective, just as bar groups rate them from a legal perspective.

"To the extent people feel that judges are not doing the job, they do have a voice," said attorney William J. Kita, noting that judges are elected.

Kita, chairman of the Erie County Bar Association's Judiciary Committee, notes that we want judges to follow the law, not popular sentiment. He's right; if they did the latter, we never would have had a civil rights revolution. He's also right about the power of the ballot. But the problem is that news accounts of the courtroom's revolving door are forgotten by the time judges – who run low-key campaigns, anyway – come up for re-election.

In addition to education, integrity and similar factors that all bar groups use, the Minority Bar Association of Western New York also considers the background, sensitivities and community connections of judicial candidates, said attorney Sheldon K. Smith, a member of and past chairman of its rating committee.

The reality is that, even within the law, a judge at some point "is going to have wide latitude," Smith said – that's why they call it "judging" – and those factors will play a part in the decision.

Granted, it's not always clear, even after what looks like a lousy ruling, who's at fault.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk said the Council voted to deny Broadway Mart a license months ago. Walker, however, said deli lawyers contend that a check for the license was cashed. Given that issue, he let the store, which has perishables, reopen pending a Nov. 20 hearing. He also said the city never made community concerns a part of the record that was before him.

Still, it's hard to believe that such a store would be allowed to operate in Eden, where Walker used to be School Board president.

The Brown administration has made quality-of-life issues a priority. Now it could use a little help because strong city neighborhoods strengthen Western New York as a whole.

We all want our individual rights protected. But where there's room for judicial discretion amid a history of troubling behavior – as with the delis – the nod should go to the neighborhoods.

Residents already can evaluate elected executives and legislators on how well they strike that balance.

Now the community needs to start tracking cases and judging the judges.