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Chautauqua County deserves its own Supreme Court justice

The 8th Judicial District of the New York Supreme Court serves the eight counties of Western New York – Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Genesee, Orleans, Wyoming and Allegany.

There are 26 judges who have been elected to 14-year terms and serve out of offices in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and the county seat of Mayville in Chautauqua County. There are also currently several Court of Claims judges assigned to Western New York who work as Supreme Court judges, and more than a few judges of various types who act as Supreme Court justices in a capacity allowed and needed on an appointment or holdover basis.

Historically, until 2003, Chautauqua County always had a native local attorney who was elected and/or served as the county’s resident Supreme Court justice. However, since 2003, Chautauqua County has been serviced by a rotation of judges who would be assigned to Mayville for two or three years and then be reassigned to Buffalo or Niagara Falls. While Chautauqua County has the caseload and population that justifies at least one full-time Supreme Court justice, due to political realities, that full-time justice always comes from Erie or Niagara counties.

The downside to not having a local Chautauqua County bar member serving in this full-time office is probably obvious. These jurists are not familiar with our local lawyers and vice versa. A visiting judge fails to provide full continuity in cases that sometimes last years, because he soon packs up an office and leaves. The most hurtful to justice for the people is that these non-local judges from Erie County don’t know the local history or the local lay of the land when ruling on cases.

A topical example finds newly elected Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita III being assigned to Mayville. Earlier this month, he rejected community efforts to halt the demolition of Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater. It’s a case that would have been best ruled on by a jurist who has a lifetime of background knowledge relating to our Chautauqua Institution’s rich history and revered place in our community.

Former State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Gerace was the last in a line of many Chautauqua County resident jurists to serve this county. Since that time, we have had a revolving door of many fine judges, but none were county residents.

This inequality began in 1997 when incumbent Gerace reached his mandatory 70th birthday retirement. (He was permitted to continue in retired status as a justice until 2003.) In 1997, then Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Steve Pigeon supported another candidate for the Chautauqua County seat. However, he promised at that time when Gerace exhausted his post-70 age extenders, he would work out a new deal so that Chautauqua County would continue to have a resident judge.

Unfortunately for Chautauqua County justice, Pigeon’s political reign did not last long enough to fulfill the promise. Politics and reality dictated that Erie County lawyers would continue to have the one up for judgeships that might become open. Erie County is the largest concentration of voting population, the epicenter of the Western New York media market and the place where one can raise the dollars it takes to win a contested race.

As the Chautauqua County Democratic Party chairman and a longtime delegate to the party’s 8th Judicial District nominating convention, I meet with Western New York’s seven other chairmen and we attempt to facilitate the judicial process as best we can. The reality is that the majority of the voting power for all judicial conventions lies in Erie County.

Occasionally, there comes the opportunity for major party cross-endorsements for interested candidates. These endorsements are always offered based on merit or other considerations that include visibility in the Buffalo media market. It is impossible for a rural lawyer from Chautauqua County to demonstrate his or her merit and it is even more impossible for a local rural lawyer to be noticed regularly by the Buffalo media. It’s just a fact that Erie County is where the political power and voter might is for making a lawyer a Supreme Court judge. For us to not accept that fact is pure folly.

It is absolutely wrong that Chautauqua County has a full-time Supreme Court office and that a local Chautauqua lawyer has no fair track available to sit in that Mayville office.

I offer two possible solutions to fix this inequity. First, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could assign one of the Court of Claims slots that he has available to be designated for Chautauqua County and assigned to Chautauqua County. Or the Western New York chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties could offer a cross-endorsement process for one of our qualified home-grown Chautauqua County lawyers. I am dedicating myself to pursing either path for justice.

Norman P. Green is chairman of the Chautauqua County Democratic Committee and Chautauqua County Democratic commissioner of elections.