As a product of a time and place, growing up on Buffalo’s East Side in the late 1960s, Hugh B. Scott got an early glimpse at America’s judicial system.
And he set out to change it.
“You could tune in at 6 o’clock and see civil rights leaders being put in paddy wagons,” Scott, now 66, said of the television newscasts he used to watch each night.
As the son of politically aware parents, he saw the inequities in America’s court systems and pretty much decided then and there that he would set out to improve people’s access to justice.
Fifty years later, more than 30 of them on the bench, Scott, the first African-American to serve as a federal judge in Buffalo, is stepping down as an active U.S. magistrate judge. He will remain on the bench but curtail his caseload and time in the courtroom.
“It’s my 20th year here and 30 plus years on the bench,” he said earlier this week. “I think I’ve accomplished everything I set out to do.”
After three decades of firsts, Scott said it’s the right time to scale back his work load. He also wants to spend more time with his family.
After his graduation from the University at Buffalo Law School in 1974, Scott embarked on a law career that made him the first African-American to head the local office of the state attorney general, as well as the first African-American to be an assistant U.S. attorney, assistant corporation counsel in Buffalo and assistant Erie County attorney.
“You’re always striving a little harder than you ought to have to,” he said of his legacy as a trailblazer.
At the age of 32, he was asked to run for Buffalo City Court judge and, much to his own surprise, won a 10-year term. He was re-elected to a second term in 1994 and a year later resigned to become magistrate judge, the job he has held for the past 20 years.
“I could have ridden off into the sunset,” he said. “I could have completely retired but I know the caseload here.”
Like the last two judges who scaled back their work load – U.S. District Judges William M. Skretny and Richard J. Arcara – Scott will continue to handle cases even after a permanent replacement is found.
He pointed to a federal court system here that everyone views as overburdened and a caseload that is one of the busiest in the nation. Quite frankly, he said, he didn’t want to burden the other magistrate judges with his caseload.
The courts here received more new filings last year – 744 new cases per judge – than all but nine of the 94 court systems across the country. One of the consequences of that is that the median civil case in Buffalo federal court now takes five years to reach trial.
Scott’s departure also means there are now three judicial vacancies in Buffalo, including the two created by Skretny and Arcara moving from active to senior status.
For Scott, the move marks an end to his years as a full-time judge, a tenure marked by a number of accomplishments, most notably the creation of Buffalo’s Re-entry Court.
The voluntary program allows convicted defendants who have served their sentence to get job training, legal assistance and other help as a way of easing their transition to society. In return, people who make it through the program and stay out of trouble can get some of their time on probation reduced by the federal judge who sentenced them.
“People said it wouldn’t work, but we’ve seen it work," Scott said of the court’s success.
Scott is scheduled to step down as an active judge on July 1. A search for a successor is underway.