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Skretny stepping down as chief federal judge, taking senior status

William M. Skretny, a working-class kid who rose to the highest ranks of Western New York’s judiciary, is stepping down as chief federal judge here.

Skretny, 69, is taking “senior judge status,” a move that allows him to cut back on his caseload but continue serving as a judge in U.S. District Court.

His decision, which takes effect next March, also sets off a jockeying among lawyers interested in the new judgeship likely to be created by his actions. The job of chief judge will be filled by Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. in Rochester.

“The decision is bittersweet,” Skretny said Wednesday. “But the stars are in line to do what I want to do.”

Skretny said the time is right – he’ll celebrate his 25th anniversary on the bench next year – for him to step down as chief judge and move to senior status. He said he informed President Obama and the local congressional delegation of his decision in a recent letter.

The job currently pays $174,000 a year.

“It’s been an incredible run and an incredible honor,” the judge said of his time in a black robe. “I’m really in disbelief when it comes to the things I’ve been able to touch while I’ve been on the bench.”

He mentioned a number of memorable cases, both criminal and civil, that have come before him and proved to be historic in nature.

And, of course, there’s the $137 million courthouse on Niagara Square that he helped build.

Finished in late 2011, the 10-story courthouse was a modern addition to Buffalo’s downtown landscape and the new home of one of the biggest federal caseloads in the nation. Skretny and U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara are generally credited with bringing the courthouse project to completion despite numerous hurdles along the way.

“The courthouse is up and running, and cases like (Flight) 3407 are behind me,” the judge said of his time on the bench.

In many ways, Skretny is following the path that other federal judges have created. U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin has been serving as a “senior” judge for more than 20 years, and, in fact, it was his decision to go to senior status that led to Skretny’s appointment by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Skretny, the first Polish-American federal judge here, came to the bench after attending law school at Howard University, one of the country’s biggest African-American colleges, and spending 21 years as an attorney, including time in private practice with Duke, Holzman, Yaeger & Radin in Buffalo.

He also served two stints as a prosecutor, first with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and later with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. He ran unsuccessfully for district attorney as a Republican in 1988.

At his swearing-in 1990, Skretny, then 45, said he could not have achieved the judgeship without the support of his parents; his wife, Carol; the couple’s three children – Brian, Brooke and Nina; and his legal and political supporters.

As Skretny leaves as chief judge, the courts here continue to manage one of the heaviest backlogs of cases in the United States.

In addition, two of Buffalo’s three district judges, Skretny and Curtin, will be serving as senior judges next year.

The hope is that a new judge will help reduce the current backlog.