Alfred Wells was the first judge of Tompkins County. The year was 1847. Since 1847 Tompkins County has had one female sitting on bench as Tompkins County Judge. One. Judge Betty Friedlander served our community for 17 years before retiring in 1993. Every last judge before and after her has been a man. It’s 2019.
The Tompkins County Democratic Committee is now faced with an important choice. This choice will reflect on our priorities and what message we want to send about how decisions are made.
On June 24, 2019, due to the glut of family law cases, it was announced that the New York State Legislature had approved a new County Court Judge position in Tompkins County. Through a series of events, the citizenry of Tompkins County will not be voting to elect which judicial candidate will represent the Democrats in the general election. This critical decision will be made by members of Tompkins County Democratic Committee on July 22, 2019.
We are a solidly blue county. This means, de facto, the people will not be electing our Judge. The several dozen members of the county’s Democratic committee will.
I find this to be highly problematic. To start, the people can’t vote for who will be their judge. More troubling is this: The swiftness of the process affords a tiny window of time to really get to know the two candidates. Judge Kennedy-Smith found out about this position after Judge Miller. She has to introduce herself to the Democratic Party in a matter of weeks. This puts Judge Miller, through no fault of his own, at a distinct advantage. In addition, it puts the Democratic committee in a difficult position as they don’t have the time needed to get to know both candidates well.
Writing this was difficult for me. I know both candidates. Judge Miller is a good friend and mentor to my daughter. I’ve seen him in action in mock trial, warmly giving back to our community. He and his wonderful wife have donated to the arts. Judge Miller is an upstanding man. He really cares. As a City Judge, the criminal cases over which he presides profoundly impact our community, and he’s very good at what he does. I’m thankful he’s on the bench.
Judge Kennedy-Smith has been a friend since seventh grade. I watched as she chose to focus on family law, despite the fact that she graduated from NYU, a top-10 law school. She could have made a killing as a corporate lawyer, but she turned her back on money in the name of a lifetime of service. I’ve watched her career with admiration as she dedicated her life to working with indigent populations and families while volunteering in her community and raising her two beautiful children. Throughout her career never once has she wavered from her commitment to justice for all people.
Both of these candidates are exceptional humans and excellent Judges. I wish they could both be selected. Yet only one can sit on the bench. As there can only be one, I am supporting Judge Kennedy-Smith. My reasons are twofold. Firstly, all things being equal I believe the Democratic Committee should put a woman on the bench. More importantly, all things are not equal.
Judge Miller, while an excellent City Court Judge, has limited family court experience. Judge Kennedy-Smith has substantial criminal law experience, but more importantly her primary subject matter expertise is in family court. For thirteen years she has served the families of our community. Seventy Five percent of the cases which land in County Court involve family disputes. From where I’m sitting, it seems like a no-brainer who the Committee should select as nominee. Judge Kennedy-Smith has the experience needed. On top of this, the other two County
Court Judges currently sitting on the bench are men. A different perspective is long overdue.
It was difficult for me to write this. Having two friends who I respect run against each other is not an easy situation. Yet this is not a competition about friendship or likability or who knows who. This is about getting diverse voices on the bench. It’s about experience and expertise. It’s about fairness and justice.
It’s about who is the best for the job.