A candidate for city court judge was reassigned to his current job amid a shake-up in Westchester County matrimonial court in 2006.
Court attorney/referee James Montagnino, who works in Rensselaer County in the state Supreme Court’s 3rd Judicial District, was one of two referees and four judges reassigned to different jobs in the state court system after complaints were investigated in the 9th Judicial District’s matrimonial part.
“There were a number of issues that were brought to the attention of the Office of Court Administration,” said David Bookstaver, spokesman for that office. “In order to address the complaints, some changes were made.”
Montagnino said the complaints about him came from two or three litigants whom he had ruled against in their divorce or custody cases. The women claimed Montagnino ruled against them based on their gender.
He said after he made a formal complaint about the administrative judge interfering with cases, someone unearthed a comment he had made two years before at a Pace Law School continuing education class. In the class, Montagnino referenced what he called a “10583 syndrome,” in which some rich divorcees in that Scarsdale ZIP code expected to receive large divorce settlements without re-entering the work force.
“The whole point of the comment was there are people who come into a matrimonial case believing they are entitled to never have to work again,” Montagnino said. It wasn’t mean to single out women, he said.
“Nobody at the time felt that there was anything wrong, improper or biased about the comment,” Montagnino said, noting that at least 75 attorneys were present at the lecture and more listened by closed-circuit video.
Response sheets from those who heard his lecture all had positive feedback, and he was invited back to speak again, he said.
After an internal investigation was completed, the human resources director told Montagnino that he committed no wrongdoing but would be reassigned to neighboring Bronx County, he said.
He responded that he would consider that retaliation under the state’s Whistleblower Law, but he would like to be transferred to the Capital Region to live closer to a Saratoga Springs vacation home.
“I said to her, ‘If you can arrange for me to be transferred there, it will be a voluntary transfer and it will be the end of the story,’ ” Montagnino said.
He is pleased with the way court is run in the Capital Region, he said.
Montagnino is running in a Democratic primary campaign against local attorney Jeffrey Wait, and the winner will face GOP nominee Matt Dorsey in November.
Wait said the primary will distract from the race against Dorsey.
He claims he decided to run, among other reasons, because not doing so would hand the election over to the GOP.
“I just think that there’s no possible way that [Montagnino] can beat Matt Dorsey,” Wait said.
Montagnino contends he isn’t really running against the other two men, and planned to wage a campaign based on his qualifications, regardless of whether he got his party’s endorsement.
“I don’t intend in running in the primary to harm the Democratic Party at all,” Montagnino said.
The last Democratic primary in the city, between endorsed mayoral candidate Gordon Boyd and voter favorite Valerie Keehn, split a party that was already on the rocks because Keehn failed to gain the party endorsement either time she ran for mayor.
Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Schneider said the judge race won’t divide the party like the mayoral race did.
The city judgeship pays $108,800 a year.
Wait, who secured the Democratic endorsement Saturday, has been a lawyer for 20 years, after starting as a prosecutor, spending seven years at the state Board of Elections and then starting a private practice. He also served as part-time city attorney under former Mayor Ken Klotz.
He is married and has three daughters.
His family has a long history in the city, from his grandfather, Sheridan, who was city attorney, and his father, David, who was district attorney for 30 years.
Wait is a 1977 graduate of Saratoga Springs High School, graduated from the University of Vermont and Western New England School of Law.