Q: You have been a staunch supporter and member of the WWBA. What drew you to the organization?
A: When I first joined the WWBA, it was because I was impressed with its forward-looking and inclusive approach to the legal community. Many professional organizations tend to be limiting and insular, but the WWBA has rejected that approach. The effect has been an organization growing in membership and evolving to meet the interests of a legal community that includes women and men.
Q: Please tell us about your legal career, and why you became a Judge?
A: My career began in White Plains. I had the good fortune to assist Joel Aurnou in the Jean Harris case, an experience I will never forget. We continued to work together in the years that followed, and our friendship remains. As a young attorney building a practice, I did not turn many clients away. Many of the professional relationships I developed at that time with attorneys and court personnel continue to this day.
During most of my legal career and before I became a Judge, I was a sole practitioner. I left a firm in White Plains in 1987 and I opened an office in Carmel with one client who followed me from White Plains because his case was on the trial calendar in Carmel. From that start, I built a practice, client by client, over many years. There were criminal cases, matrimonials, zoning matters, contract matters, and virtually any type of dispute that people could have. I also became involved in local politics. As a Democrat in Republican dominated Putnam, and I was told that Custer had a better chance at the Little Big Horn, than I had of being elected. Still, I was elected to the County Legislature.
One of the reasons I chose Carmel for an office was because it was close to home, and I wanted to be a part of my son’s life as he was growing. When I opened my office in Carmel my son was two years old. When he was three or four, I took a day off and we went on a search for every playground I could find. I have a photograph of him with a smile I won’t forget taken that day on a jungle-jim. A few years later our daughter was born, and I took advantage of similar opportunities as she grew especially as she pursued her gymnastics activities. The judges I appeared before were willing, within reason, to schedule matters that allowed me to spend those times with my children. I have always appreciated that courtesy and I try to “pay it forward” when the situation arises.
After many years of practicing law I aspired to become a Judge. I was always taught that one had an obligation to give back, as a means of making the world a better place. My practice primarily consisted of family law and criminal law. I saw the strengths and weaknesses of a system designed to resolve disputes. The human component of the law was paramount. I felt that I could apply my skills and training in ways that could benefit the parties before me. There was also the intellectual challenge, and the recognition that there really are (at least) two sides to an issue. I always enjoyed the intellectual “chess game” that resulted in a decision or course of action but I could not ignore the impact of those decisions on the parties I represented. As a Judge, I felt I could pursue the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments advanced by both sides, challenge the positions, and reach a decision with an emphasis on the human factor. This combination of experience, skills, and challenge, led me to seek a judgeship.
Q: What are your biggest challenges, and greatest joys on the bench?
A: As a general matter, one of the biggest challenges is to know each of the cases on my calendar. Knowledge of the case and the parties enables me to move it forward and examine possibilities of resolution. It is important to the attorneys and the litigants that the court has that working knowledge. When the parties know the judge is familiar with their case they will be more receptive to a decision and more willing to accept the outcome. In this respect, I have been fortunate to sit as an IAS (Individual Assignment System) Judge in Putnam and Dutchess where I could preside over a case from start to finish. Still, my current year’s caseload of approximately 400 cases poses a challenge, and the morning calendar often means homework the night before, or an early morning review. There are areas of law with which I am less familiar than others. These areas pose a challenge to learn quickly, focus on the issues, and understand the arguments in order to render prompt and proper decisions. For example, the intricacies of defamation, medical malpractice, ancient real estate titles, uninsured motorists, evaluating damages in personal injury matters, tax certiorari, and other varied issues have crossed my desk over the last few years. While I rely on counsel’s submissions, I also do my own research.
One of the greatest joys is providing the parties with their day in court. A litigant has a story to tell and is searching for someone to listen. It has been my experience, going back to the days I served as an Arbitrator in the Small Claims Part of the White Plains City Court that when the parties have had a full opportunity to present their case, they are more likely to accept the outcome.
Writing a decision is a challenge. Marshalling the facts, evidence, issues and arguments is often time consuming and the luxury of time is often lacking. I write my own trial decisions often at night or on weekends as I am on the bench on an almost daily basis. The process of drafting, editing, revising, and correcting is one that does not come easily, but it should result in a decision that parties can follow and understand, even if they disagree with it. I try to cut through the jargon and technical terms in order to be understood more easily. Mark Twain once said, “[t]he difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I try to follow that advice as there is, for me, an element of pride in the finished product. Some of my decisions have included environmental issues, valuation of a substantial family held business, custody issues, discovery issues, Article 78 proceedings and other issues. They are too varied to choose a favorite.
Issues of child custody are not only the biggest challenge, but also, if done right, they provide the greatest joy. The issue of custody gives the Judge one chance “to get it right.” That feeling existed when I was in private practice, when I represented children, parents, and grandparents, and it exists now as a Judge. It is a decision not made lightly. The long-term effects of a wrong decision are crushing and painful. There are statements made by children in camera that may be joyful or heartbreaking, such as hearing an upset child try to recall the last time they laughed at something, or the child who expresses that a parent does not treat him as a member of the family. The behavior of the parents often makes the custody determination more difficult, not less difficult. Many years ago, I was representing three children in a custody dispute. After several days of testimony, the Judge turned to the attorneys for the parents and said to them, in substance, “I have heard each of you and your clients tell me how bad the other person is. I have to make a decision regarding custody, and I would like to know how good each of your clients are.” It is a simple lesson, but one I have never forgotten. It is my own impression in the custody arena that neither parent is as good as they think they are, nor are they as bad as the other one thinks they are. Moreover, it is easier to make a decision, or be more forceful in resolving a custody issue, if there are good things that can be said or demonstrated about a parent, rather than simply criticizing the other parent. There is a joy in the right decision because the child is generally provided with the stability and security to grow and thrive.
Q: How have you balanced work and family life throughout the years?
A: Balancing work and family life required a constant effort. That effort was even greater when I was a sole practitioner and I had to respond to clients, colleagues, and courts on a frequent basis. I recall a family vacation in Vermont with a message waiting for me when I arrived. An attorney who knew I was leaving on a vacation chose to file an Order to Show Cause. Fortunately, I was able to address the issues from a distance as the “emergency” could await my return. In the areas of family law and criminal law phone calls at night and on weekends are the unfortunate norm. Now, cell phones and text messaging can be a blessing or a curse. The struggle to be exclusively available to my family on weekends was partially successful as clients’ needs and deadlines always loomed.
Over the years I developed a solution which many colleagues thought was totally impractical, if not insane. I drew a line through the month of August for me and my family. August was mine; there were no trials and no appointments. There was coverage for emergencies, and I stopped becoming upset if I lost a potential client. Instead, I spent time with my family. We traveled, relaxed, watched my kids rock climb in Maine, and other adventures. I could be reached if necessary, but with advanced planning, it was rarely necessary. I also took advantage of three-day weekends during the year. What seemed insane at the beginning made a lot of sense. Since taking the bench, it is impractical to take a month in one block but at the same time, I no longer have the pressures of a sole practitioner and the court calendar is more forgiving as the demands of the day end at 5:00 p.m., not 10:00 p.m. Holiday visitation disputes are resolved in the courtroom rather than on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. I no longer receive calls about a client submitting to a breathalyzer on a Sunday morning at 2:00 a.m. Now, in my free time, you are likely to find me on a hiking trail. My backpack will contain a sandwich and my camera. Once I am on a hiking trail I can relax and focus on my destination and the world around me. The natural solitude is its own reward. In those moments when I am on the trails, the only laws I care about are the laws of nature.