When voters head to the polls on Nov. 6, they will see a lot of names on the ballot, due in part to a crowded field in the race for the Fourth Judicial District of the New York State Supreme Court.
Voters will select four Supreme Court justices out of a pool of eight candidates. Jeffrey D. Wait, John M. Silvestri, Christine M. Clark and Mark L. Powers will be on the Democratic Party line, and Joseph M. Sise, Thomas Buchanan, Felix J. Catena and John T. Ellis will be on the Republican and Conservative party lines. This is the first time in recent years that a full slate of Democratic candidates has run.
The Fourth Judicial District covers a huge region in upstate New York, including 11 counties: Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Montgomery, Saratoga, Schenectady, St. Lawrence, Warren and Washington.
Justices will be elected to 14-year terms. The candidates are limited when it comes to campaigning; they are not allowed to run on political agendas or make campaign promises. They also can't solicit campaign contributions directly, and they aren't allowed to know whom their donors are. Campaign funds are raised by committees.
Justices and justice candidates are also required to take a course on judicial campaign ethics.
Sise is the lone incumbent in the race, although Catena and Powers currently serve as acting Supreme Court justices. Silvestri ran unsuccessfully in 2011, when four candidates ran for three open seats. The winners were all Republicans: John Lahtinen, Robert Chauvin and Ann Crowell.
The Fourth District is the largest judicial district in New York state, accounting for 26 percent of the state's land mass, according to the New York State Unified Court System website. The Supreme Court is the "trial court of unlimited original jurisdiction," the website reads.
"The Supreme Court generally hears only cases that are outside the jurisdiction of other trial courts of more limited jurisdiction," according to NYSUCS. "It exercises its civil jurisdiction statewide. In New York City and some other parts of the state, it also exercises jurisdiction over felony charges.
"Travel from one end of the district to the other takes four hours with the greatest part of the drive taking one through rural mountain areas on secondary roads."
According to the NYSUCS, the district's population is about 840,000, or about 4.7 percent of the state's total population. Sixty-five percent of the district's population is concentrated in the six southern-most counties.
"Because of the Canadian border and the St. Lawrence Seaway, there is considerable international trade in our district," the website reads. "There is manufacturing and agriculture. It is the vacation land of our state where tourism is a major industry. It has mountains, lakes and rivers, and the state's two principal superhighways run east to west and north to south through the district. Whatever there is, we've got it in the Fourth Judicial District. There is the opulence of Saratoga Springs in August while there are widespread pockets of abject poverty. All of this diversity produces legal problems resulting in litigation."
The League of Women Voters in Plattsburgh will host a meet-and-greet with all eight candidates at 7 p.m. Monday. The event will be held at the American Legion Post 20 on Quarry Road in Plattsburgh, according to the LWV website. Each candidate will be given five minutes to speak to voters, and voters will be able to speak with candidates directly following introductions.
Party: Republican, Conservative
Education: BA from SUNY Albany, 1993; graduated magna cum laude from Albany Law School in 1998
Experience: Buchanan has worked in private practice for more than 14 years with the Albany-based law firm Hacker Murphy LLP, including "extensive work at the trial and appellate levels on behalf of a wide range of clients," according to his campaign website. He belongs to the Capital District Trial Lawyers Association, New York Bar Association, New York State Academy of Trial Lawyers, Albany County Bar Association and Kiwanis, and is a past member of the Rotterdam Business Association. He was admitted to the U.S. District Court's Northern District in 1999 and the U.S. District Court's Southern District in 2001.
What qualifies you for this position? "Having represented a wide range of clients in the New York Supreme Court, ranging from small business owners, to the disabled, I have gained a deep understanding of the struggles ordinary New Yorkers face," Buchanan said. "Having worked my way through college and law school, and as a father of three, I understand that a Supreme Court Justice must always keep in mind the gravity of his or her decision, and the impact it will have on the ordinary lives of the litigants. Nearly one hundred percent of my practice is in the New York Supreme Court. I possess the experience necessary to be a good Supreme Court Judge because I have been there my entire career."
Felix J. Catena
Party: Republican, Conservative
Education: BA in political science from American University, 1979; California Western School of Law, 1985
Experience: Catena has 17 years of judicial experience. He was re-elected to a 10-year term as Montgomery County Court judge in 2009 and is an acting Supreme Court justice, having presided over more than 1,000 cases including 60 trials in Montgomery, Fulton, Schenectady, Saratoga, Warren, Clinton and Albany counties. He is an acting surrogate court judge in Schenectady County and an acting family court judge, and served as Amsterdam City Court judge from 1995 to 1999. He has served on a court budget task force, a jury instruction committee and a judicial skills committee. He worked in private practice from 1990 to 1999 and worked for the Solicitor's Office of the U.S. Department of Labor from 1987 to 1989.
What qualifies you for this position? "My personality is one that lends itself very well to a person who is called upon to resolve disputes," Catena said. "I am and have always been non-confrontational and non-adversarial. A judge, in addition to being well versed in the law, fair and impartial, is required to mediate contentious issues, to 'step into the arena of conflict' and be level-headed, deliberate and considerate of the positions of each side. In that way, a judge will then have openly and with due and proper deliberation considered all the facts and arguments of the parties and be better able to decide the case fairly and impartially. My commitment to serve the public as their Supreme Court Justice has been demonstrated by my involvement in the community over the past 20 years."
Christine M. Clark
Education: BA in history and political science from Columbia University, 1993; graduated cum laude from Albany Law School in 1996
Experience: Clark worked for the Albany-based law firm Dreyer Boyajian LLP from 1995 to 1998. She went on to work for the Schenectady County District Attorney's Office as an assistant DA from 1998 to 2000, a sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor from 2001 to 2004 and as bureau chief of the special victims unit in 2004. From 2005 to 2010, Clark served as a Schenectady City Court judge, conducting criminal jury trials; arraigning individuals on violations as well as misdemeanor and felony charges; reviewing arrest and search warrant applications; and presiding as acting family court and county court judge. Since January 2011 she has served as judge of Schenectady County Family Court.
What qualifies you for this position? "The most important lesson I ever learned as a judge was not taught to me in law school or heard in a court room," Clark said in a statement on her website. "It came from my brother: 'Try to be kind to everyone because everybody, no matter who they are, carries a burden.' In that simple sentence lies the essence of the responsibilities of a New York State Supreme Court Justice. Where there is no compassion, there can be no justice. As a judge, for the past seven years, I treat everyone who comes before me with compassion, respect and courtesy."
John T. Ellis
Party: Republican, Conservative
HOMETOWN: Tupper Lake
Education: BA in history from Siena College, 1987; Albany Law School, 1990
Experience: Ellis served as trial counsel, senior trial counsel and chief of legal assistance for the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, N.C., from 1990 to 1994, where he prosecuted 26 felony jury trials and won the Army's Chief of Staff award for Best Legal Assistance Office. From 1995 to 2005, he worked for the Tupper Lake-based law firm Murray & Ellis PLLC. There, he practiced law in the following fields: family, real estate, trust and estates, and civil litigation. He successfully argued four cases in the Appellate Division. From 2000 to 2005, he served as assistant district attorney for the Franklin County District Attorney's Office. Since 2005 he has served as a family court support magistrate for the Fourth Judicial District's Unified Court System in Saratoga Springs. In that capacity, he conducted bench trials in Schenectady, St. Lawrence, Fulton and Franklin counties, and assigned cases for spousal support, child support and paternity, among others.
What qualifies you for this position? "By law, Supreme Court candidates have chambers where they are elected," Ellis said. "If elected, I will have chambers in Franklin County just as Judge (Jan) Plumadore did. There is only one Supreme Court Judge hearing cases north of Warren County and 12 hearing cases south of Warren County. There hasn't been a seated Supreme Court Judge in Franklin County in 4 years. The people of the North Country, whether Republican, Democrat, Liberal, white, black, purple, green, women and men, deserve the same access to justice as the rest of the state. ... I am proud to be the only veteran running, having served on active duty with the 82d Airborne Division. I have a family and know what its like to raise children in the North Country."
Mark L. Powers
Education: BA from SUNY Albany, 1978; Western New England School of Law, 1985; master of law and letters, Albany Law School, 2009
Experience: Powers has served as a Schenectady County Family Court judge for 11 years and as a full-time acting Supreme Court justice since 2004. He served four years as "designated judge" for Schenectady County's Integrated Domestic Violence Court, and two years in the same capacity for Essex County. He is a former municipal attorney for the town of Glenville in Schenectady County and the village of Nelliston in Montgomery County. He has also served on a family court advisory committee and as a lead judge for the Fourth Judicial District's Child Welfare Court Improvement Project.
What qualifies you for this position? "I treat parties and counsel with respect and courtesy, taking into account the emotionally difficult circumstances of their cases," Powers said. "I believe this is why I am ranked 'Highly Qualified' by the Independent Judicial Qualifications Commission." In a statement on his campaign website, Powers said he's "uniquely qualified for the Supreme Court" because of his experience in family court and as an acting Supreme Court judge. "I bring to this race the depth of experience required to serve in this position," he said.
John M. Silvestri
Education: BA from Hofstra University, 1976; Pace University School of Law, 1981
Experience: Silvestri began his professional career as a tractor-trailer driver and part-time iron worker, working in the New York City metropolitan area from 1971 to 1976. From 1977 to 1978, he worked for Nassau County Legal Services and then worked for Westchester Legal Services from 1980 to 1981. From 1982 to 1983, he practiced law with the Rockville Centre-based law firm Howard S. Kass PC. He worked for the George B. McPhillips law firm in Mineola from 1983 to 1984. From 1984 to 1986 he was an assistant district attorney for the Warren County District Attorney's Office. He was an attorney for the town of Hague from 1984 to 1994 and for the town of North Hudson from 2003 to present. He has been self-employed as a lawyer serving the Adirondack region since 1984, with an office in Chestertown.
What qualifies you for this position? "Doing justice requires more than just a knowledge of the law," Silvestri said. "Justice requires social awareness, knowledge of people and empathy. Courts must provide an opportunities to change lives in a positive manner. My three decades of trial experience, as prosecution and defense counsel, working with Legal Services, representing children who come from an environment of domestic violence, victims of domestic violence as well as perpetrators, veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and others who have special needs have given me the temperament and skills to provide a court where justice, dignity, respect and opportunity to improve will prevail."
Joseph M. Sise
Party: Republican, Conservative
HOMETOWN: Montgomery County
Education: BA from Siena College, 1988; Albany Law School, 1988
Experience: Sise served as an assistant district attorney for the Bronx County DA's office from 1988 to 1990 and went on to hold the same position for Montgomery County from 1990 to 1995. He was assistant DA for Fulton County from 1991 to 1994 and was an attorney for the Montgomery County Department of Social Services from 1994 to 1995. He began his judicial career in 1995 as a Montgomery County Court judge. He was elected to Montgomery County Supreme Court in 1991 and has served there since.
What qualifies you for this position? "I have had the honor and privilege of serving as your judge for 17 years and it has been a wonderful opportunity for me, and my wife Robin, and our four children," Sise said. "The selection of our Supreme Court Judge is an important one. If given the opportunity to continue as your judge, I dedicate myself to earnest effort, diligence of purpose, and to remember that all who come to court deserve to be treated with the respect, fairness and dignity that we all deserve.
Jeffrey D. Wait
HOMETOWN: Saratoga Springs
Education: University of Colorado, 1977 to 1979; BA in English and philosophy from University of Vermont, 1983; Western New England School of Law, 1987
Experience: Wait began his career as an assistant district attorney with the Suffolk County DA's office, serving from 1987 to 1989. From 1989 to 1990, he was an associate attorney with the law firm of Rivkin, Radler, Bayh, Hart & Kremer in Uniondale. He spent the next two years as an associate attorney for the Solin, Breindel & Berger law firm, which has offices in Albany and New York City. From 1993 to 1999, he served as special deputy counsel with the state Board of Elections. He has worked as an attorney for the city of Saratoga Springs and in private practice with Flink Smith LLC, which has an office in Lake Placid. He ran his own office from 2006 to 2008 and became a Saratoga Springs City Court judge in 2009. In 2010 he was appointed acting county court judge and supervising judge for the town and village justice courts in Saratoga, Montgomery, Fulton and Schenectady counties.
What qualifies you for this position? "I believe that my qualifications can be measured by the even temperament, sense of fairness and commitment to public service demonstrated during my twenty-one years as a practicing attorney and then as City Court Judge for the City of Saratoga Springs during the past four years," Wait said. "What I have to offer is a thoughtful understanding of human nature, a passion for the law, and a dedication to judicial integrity. The voters can be assured that I will at all times endeavor to make a positive difference in the lives of people who may appear before me in Supreme Court."