Schenectady County

Where goes the new judge?

The City Court in Schenectady could get a fourth judge position.

The City Court in Schenectady could get a fourth judge position.

Local legal officials, though, are questioning whether there are other, more pressing, judicial needs in Schenectady County, namely in County Court and in Family Court.

The proposed new Schenectady City Court judgeship was part of a statewide bill that would increase the number of city judges around the state, including bringing Saratoga Springs from 1.5 full-time position to two full-time positions. The bill finished making its way through the state Legislature on Saturday morning and requires Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature to become law.

Schenectady’s increase from three full-time posts to four full-time posts would take effect Jan. 1, 2015. The Saratoga Springs change would take effect on April 1, 2014.

According to the bill memorandum, the measure was introduced at the request of the chief judge and chief administrative judge, upon the recommendation of an ad hoc City Court Advisory Committee.

The memorandum notes that sometimes City Court judges can be temporarily assigned to serve in County Court or Family Court, when case loads require it.

“In short, more so perhaps than as to any other court in our trial court system,” the memorandum reads, “it is vital that City Courts be maintained in a state of maximum preparedness to cope with their case loads.”

DA, Defender skeptical

Told of the proposal Friday, though, both Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney and Schenectady County Conflict Defender Steve Signore questioned whether a new judgeship in Schenectady County should be created on the county level first, before considering an expansion in City Court.

Carney said on Friday that he hadn’t heard about the effort to add a new judge to City Court. But he responded by pointing to the case load in County Court.

“I can’t imagine that would take preference over a County Court judge,” Carney said. “We need a second County Court judge, not a fourth City Court judge.”

Carney also said he believes Family Court has similar pressures, though his office doesn’t practice there.

Schenectady County currently only has one County Court judge, Judge Karen Drago. Regularly helping her are judges visiting from other counties.

On Friday, a total of 27 individuals went before judges in County Court. Drago saw 14 of them. Judge Richard Giardino, a visiting judge from Fulton County, saw five, one of them an ongoing burglary trial. Judge Frank P. Milano, usually a state Court of Claims judge, saw six cases. And former Schenectady County Court Judge Michael C. Eidens, working as a judicial hearing officer, was set to preside over a hearing.

Signore questioned how a fourth City Court judge would work, though he suggested each judge might take a particular day’s arraignments, similar to how Albany City Court functions.

Needs at Family Court

But Signore, too, looked to County Court and Family Court.

“I’d like to see another County Court judge before I see a City Court judge, to handle the volume there,” Signore said.

He’d also like to see a Family Court judge before a City Court judge.

Signore said he believes Family Court in Schenectady County is now at a “critical mass” that would prompt another judge position.

Family Court is already down a judge in Schenectady County, with the election of Judge Christine Clark to the state Supreme Court last November.

A replacement for Clark has not been named. Representatives of Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not return a call for comment.

The Schenectady County League of Women Voters in February urged Cuomo to fill the vacant position by appointment.

Family Court now relies on Judge Mark Powers and four part-timers. Retired judges L. Foster James and Eidens are acting as judicial hearing officers, while Saratoga County Family Court judges Courtney Hall and Jennifer Jensen Bergan are filling in on a visiting basis.

Aside from the vacant position, Signore said he believes Family Court in Schenectady County would benefit from a third position.

“I think the need is greater at the County Court level and Family Court level,” Signore said.

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