March 19, 1933 – March 1, 2020
Retired Surrogate Court Judge Joseph S. Mattina, who oversaw about 10,000 adoptions in his decades on the bench, received cards every Christmas from adoptive parents.
When he went out in public, someone invariably pulled up a child’s photo on their phone or from their wallet.
In 2016, Judge Mattina was especially touched by a long, handwritten letter from a nurse who adopted two girls from India.
In 1993, Catholic Charities, the agency that had placed her second daughter in her home, changed its course at the final adoption hearing. A social worker argued that the girl should be raised by a married couple, not a single woman. Judge Mattina removed Catholic Charities from the case and had Erie County take over.
“I’ve been sick for two years,” he told The Buffalo News after receiving the letter. “This was the best dose of medicine I’ve gotten.”
Judge Mattina died on Sunday in Erie County Medical Center after a lengthy illness. He was 86.
Born in Buffalo, he was the son of Italian immigrants, Vincent and Carmela (Tirone) Mattina, and brother of Mary. His father was a shoemaker for 30 years, then opened a restaurant.
Although born here, he spoke only Italian as a child because no one in his family spoke English. As a result, he was required to repeat kindergarten and was kept in special education classes at School 19 until third grade. That year, he met a teacher, Beatrice Cohen Rosen, whom Judge Mattina said “rescued him and recognized his potential.” A teacher at School 19 for 40 years, she taught him proper diction and remained his mentor throughout her life.
He was a 1950 graduate of Lafayette High School, where he was an honor student, a Student Council member and editor in chief of the yearbook. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Buffalo, followed by a law degree from UB Law School.
He worked his way through school with jobs at J.N. Adam, Sears, Thom McAn, the Glen Casino, the Town Casino, the Statler and Sheraton hotels, the city, the county and WGR radio where, as a 15-year-old, he predicted high school football scores on Bill Keaton's show. He got 11 of his first 13 predictions correct.
He was one of five judges who graduated in the 68-member UB Law School Class of 1956, which also included noted defense lawyers Harold Boreanaz and Herald Price Fahringer. Health problems caused him to miss the first opportunity to take the bar exam, but he passed it on his first attempt in the fall of 1956.
Judge Mattina was chief deputy clerk in Erie County Children's Court for 18 months before entering private practice for a year.
He then served in the Erie County District Attorney's Office for four years, where, he wrote in 1966, "I prosecuted cases ranging from driving offenses to murder in the first degree."
He returned to private practice in January 1964. Then, on Dec. 28, 1965, he was appointed an associate judge in City Court.
In the following November's general elections, although running as a Republican in a Democratic city, he won a 10-year term on the City Court bench.
On Feb. 5, 1969, he was appointed to the Erie County Court bench. At 35, he was the youngest judge in the court.
During his time in the DA's Office, Judge Mattina later wrote, he became very interested in the problem of drug abuse. In the summer of 1968, he spent two weeks of his vacation as a volunteer worker in the Haight-Ashbury Clinic in San Francisco, speaking with people dealing with addiction, and continued to promote education and treatment. He also specialized in alcoholism and traffic safety issues.
Judge Mattina also was in favor of bail reform long before it caught on. He brought the John Howard Society to Buffalo, and was involved in creating a prisoner release program later renamed the Erie County Bar Association Pre-Trial Services Agency.
In early 1970, he was named by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to oversee minority hiring for the construction of the UB North Campus in Amherst.
Judge Mattina also played a role in some of the most famous cases of the day.
In County Court in 1970, he sentenced Winston Moseley, who had escaped custody in a Buffalo hospital in 1968 and went on a three-day rampage, raping two women and holding four people captive. Moseley had been serving a prison sentence for the brutal 1964 stabbing death of Kitty Genovese in Queens.
In 1975, the year after he was appointed to the State Supreme Court, he presided over the case of Bernard "Shango" Stroble, an Attica Correctional Facility inmate who was found not guilty of murdering a fellow inmate during the 1971 prison uprising.
As an Erie County Surrogate's Court judge, he used his appointment powers in 1992 to enlarge the board of the Statler Foundation and encourage the Buffalo-based charitable trust to direct more of its philanthropy to Western New York.
In 1998, after reading a story in The Buffalo News about a man who had been separated from his siblings in 1957 when they were taken from their abusive parents, he opened the sealed files to help the man find his lost relatives.
"There was no hesitation," he said at the time. "The reward is in the happiness I see in these faces."
He stepped down from the bench in 2003 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. At the time, he was the longest-serving judge in Western New York history.
In retirement, he was chairman and CEO of Counsel Financial Services in Amherst. He also was a member of the board of directors of the United Cerebral Palsy Association.
He also enjoyed playing cards and smoking cigars.
"He was really one of a kind, a larger-than-life jurist who had tremendous political instincts," said Salvatore R. Martoche, a retired Appellate Division, 4th Department jurist.
"He was kind and helpful to a lot of people in his life, both inside and outside of his courtroom. Now that he's passed he will not be forgotten because he did so many things and touched so many people," Martoche said.
"When you walked into his office there were a line people there," Martoche said. "It was like going to confession."
Judge Mattina was named a Person of the Year by the Federation of Italian-American Societies and was honored in 1999 by the Pulaski Association of the Niagara Frontier for his contributions to the Polish American community.
Columbus Hospital was renamed the Joseph S. Mattina Community Health Center in his honor.
Survivors include his wife of 63 years, the former Barbara Susse; a daughter, Jacqueline Mattina; two sons, Dylan and Todd; 11 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9 a.m. Thursday in St. Michael Church, 651 Washington St.