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COMMENTARY

The courage of Mark Farrell

They buried Amherst Town Justice Mark Farrell from St. Joseph’s University Church in North Buffalo last weekend, and we’re sure he was remembered as a distinguished and accomplished jurist.

But Farrell, who died Aug. 26 of cancer, was also a good man who recognized wrong when he saw it. Back in 2002, he told The Buffalo News the price in money and politics of gaining the local Democratic Party’s nomination for a State Supreme Court candidacy.

He called it “the most demeaning and draining” experience of his life. He acknowledged playing the game, and accepted its eventual price.

But Farrell was also a man of principle, who recognized that Supreme Court nominations had become ensnared in a web of money and politics far removed from the ideals that should guide such a revered and respected position in our society.

Farrell told The News that in order to win the endorsement in 1999, he felt forced to contribute to campaigns and causes dear to Steve Pigeon, then the Erie County Democratic chairman. That meant buying tickets to virtually every political fundraiser the chairman sent his way.

“It was like candidates for Supreme Court were an endless font of money for every campaign throughout the eight counties,” the Democrat said in 2002. “If you don’t contribute … your chances of an endorsement dropped dramatically.”

In The News obituary, the judge was remembered for establishing the nation’s first suburban drug and gambling treatment courts, the first domestic violence court in Erie County, and a court for combat veterans.

“He became a counselor to so many in how to set up those courts,” recalled his friend Bill Donohue, the former state commerce commissioner and Michigan economic development official. “It was really Mark who started it all.”

But Farrell told The News in 2002 that none of that mattered. He said the endorsement resulted only after Pigeon ordered him to call Amherst Democratic Committee members and urge Pigeon’s re-election as county chairman.

“I had to sit in a back office at headquarters and call every single member of the Amherst Democratic Committee, close to 200 people, for a pledge of total support [for Pigeon] in 2000,” Farrell said back then. “After about 50 or 60 or 70 calls, he said: ‘You did fine. I’ll give you the endorsement.’”

Pigeon always denied Farrell’s view of those days, calling them an exaggeration. But the judge never forgot the calls or the $7,500 “bill” he received from the party.

“If I saw $7,500 worth of service in my campaign, then I’m the man in the moon.” he said then. “In the three races I ran [in Amherst], I never had to contribute a cent. Instead, it was a recognition of my abilities and accomplishments.”

The irony in all this stems from the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, which apparently read those 2002 stories in The News. In a classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” ruling, the commission in 2004 admonished Farrell for making the calls and paying the bill.

“[Farrell] should not have permitted his name and judicial prestige to be used in promoting the political interests of another,” the commission ruled – even as money and politics were rampantly ruling judicial selection in Western New York for a generation. Indeed, some elements of those practices continue today.

For the rest of his life, Farrell had to wear the minor blemish the commission assigned him as it ignored the politics and money that was dominating the judicial selection process at large. That must have hurt. Farrell was proud of his profession and its necessary integrity.

But after the commission’s ruling, he remained glad he took a stand and helped expose the seamy ways that some locals exchange for those prestigious black robes.

“My wife asked me when this hit if I would talk to the press about it again,” Farrell said after the ruling. “I thought about it for a long time, and then I told her ‘absolutely,’ because it needed to be done.”

Few people in politics are willing to take that route. Those who do are worthy of the label Donohue hung on his old pal: “He was an extraordinary man.”

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