By Melissa deCordova
and Brian Golden
NORWICH – Several hundred potential voters attended Thursday night’s Chenango County Judicial Candidates Forum, held at 7 p.m. in the Norwich High School auditorium and moderated by The Evening Sun.
The three candidates – Frank Revoir, Diane DiStefano and Joseph McBride – had an opportunity to review five prepared questions beforehand, and names were randomly drawn to determine the order in which each candidate would answer. To preserve the dignity of the office, judicial guidelines stipulated the types of questions that could and couldn’t be asked.
DiStefano, 41, began practicing family law in Chenango County in 1996 and is currently a member of the Vitanza, DiStefano and Dean law firm. She passed the bar in 2001 and is also an assistant public defender for Chenango County.
McBride, 54, has 28 years experience as a trial lawyer, including 13 years in private practice and 13 years as Chenango County’s full time District Attorney, and is the only candidate with extensive prosecutorial experience, litigating 65 jury trials.
Revoir, 46, began his career as a law clerk for now Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dowd. He was a part-time attorney for Scott Clippinger Law and opened his own law practice in 1996. He has also served as assistant county attorney for 16 years.
Question 1. Please tell us why you want to be the next Chenango County Judge?
(All three candidates said they had asked themselves this question regularly given the time-consuming and intense competition for the position.)
In his response, Revoir acknowledged his upbringing and his ambition: “In all seriousness, I want to make a positive difference in the lives of the people of this county. I’m not one of those people who gets their education, pursues a career and then retires. I want more than that. My parents taught me that we each have an obligation to give of ourselves,” he said.
The Chenango County Court Judge has a significant role to play, he added, and has a “direct and fundamental impact” on people’s lives. He said he was driven by his “passion and commitment to everyone here.”
“I can think of no other possible way to affect the lives of the people of Chenango County than to represent them as judge.”
The candidate stressed her experience representing “literally thousands” in Family Court, saying her goal was to “make a huge difference in the lives of families and children.” She described her personal education parenting three step children and her own child as an example of learning what’s best for the families and children.
“I’m sensitive to broken families. Kids and their parents ... that’s what Family Court is about, kids and money. I can draw on my own experience and professional experience in dealing with those sensitive issues in Family Court. I strongly believe that if we take care of our children now, we will prevent them from (appearing in court.) Right, wrong or indifferent folks, that what I’m looking to do.”
DiStefano said she had tried one felony trial during her career, which she won.
She said, “I’m going to be myself and going to tell you the truth.”
McBride said he has spent his entire professional life serving the community in order to help make Chenango County a better place to live “in my own little way.”
“I have the desire to serve the community. I have the experience, the experience that’s necessary, and would love that opportunity (to be judge),” he said.
With 20 jury trials, hundreds of hearings, experience in public defender’s office, and as District Attorney for 13 years, McBride said he has the experience necessary to represent children and divorce cases as part of the family court.
“I desire to serve the county as your next Chenango County Court judge.”
Question 2. Each of you has had a wide variety of experience in legal matters over the course of your careers. How does your specific experience speak to your qualifications for this office?
The candidate stated that voters “need someone who has served” in Family Court and cited a number of procedural changes that have been effected over the past decade, adding it’s “important you keep up on these things.”
“(The) best person for the job needs to be active in Family Court day in and day out. It’s not a job for a prosecutor (and) it’s not necessary to be a prosecutor to be a judge ... (although) that’s been a trend in Chenango County.”
“It’s time for a change; you have a choice this year.”
Cited his experience as a litigator and nearly three decades spent in a courtroom.
“Meaning no disrespect to my opponents, I have more experience than anyone at this podium.”
McBride stated that a candidate’s background and experience are most important when it comes to the county court judgeship and that – in criminal cases, it’s “not a place for on the job training.”
“When picking a judge, (you want) to get the most well-informed judge, otherwise there are consequences for the entire community. Jury trials are not like Family Court ... the rules are very complicated and they come with time. The most difficult part of job is presiding over those very difficult court cases and I have the experience.”
“Our County Court Judge must preside over all three courts (and) it’s a comprehensive job.”
Revoir stated he is the only candidate who has “regularly practiced in all three courts,” and while all three candidates have Family Court experience, he has 21 years spent in Family Court.
“My experience far exceeds either of other candidates.”
He added he also has experience with criminal law and has handled “hundreds of criminal cases,” including three felony trials.
“My experience provides me the necessary qualifications (for County Court Judge). I’m the only candidate that practices in Surrogate’s Court and I have the most comprehensive and relevant background when it comes to presiding over all three courts. It’s a comprehensive job [and] I am a comprehensive candidate.”
3. Much has been made in this campaign about judicial temperament. Please define that, and tell us what characteristics you believe you possess that make you the best candidate in that regard?
McBride read a list of attributes that effective judges must possess: compassionate, decisive, open minded, sensitive, courteous, patient, free of bias and commitment to justice.
He said judges need to be compassionate, and he would “not make any apology for being passionate when it comes to keeping Chenango County safe.” Judges fill the gap between the government, prosecutors and the defendants, and the person must be “the face of justice” and the “most qualified person... decisive, firm but yet passionate.”
Being a role model in the community matters, he also said.
“Should I be lucky enough to be elected, I ensure I have the proper judicial temperament ... and compassion,” he said.
The candidate said that, above all else, judges “facilitate conflict resolution.” They need to possess good, judicial temperament and, reading from his campaign card, said his background and life experiences have helped him “become decidely self assured yet not arrogant, nor entitled; staunchly principled yet tolerant; knowledgeable yet open and fair minded; and even tempered yet not unduly passive. These are the traits and characteristics which personify an effective judge which I believe that I possess.”
He cited maintaining the dignity of the courtroom, and instilling confidence in the system of judicial law. “I want those attending and those involved to leave the courtroom whether they agree or disagree, (to have) confidence in the system so that when they leave the courtroom, they believe that the system does work.”
Sensitivity to others’ feelings and being able to set aside your own as a judge is of great importance, according to DiStefano. “How you treat people is crucial,” she said, adding that she has represented “the poorest of the poor and multi-million dollar divorces and everything in between.”
“Temperament is how you treat people ... poor or rich, smart or not smart,” she said. “All human beings deserve to be treated fairly.”
“When this election is over, we all have to live and work together for the good of our community,” she concluded. “Our temperament as judges ... we don’t hold grudges, we look past that.”
4. Which of the three courts - Family, County or Surrogate - consumes the most amount of the county judge’s time and why is that important when choosing a candidate?
As to the first part of question, Revoir said Family Court “consumes most amount of time,” running Monday through Thursday and averaging 30 cases per day. It’s so busy, in fact, that Supreme Court Judge Dowd is asked to preside over the court at times. Revoir added that McBride and current Chenango County Judge W. Howard Sullivan, for years, have asked for the creation of a second judge position.
“(I spend) the vast majority of my time overseeing Family Court ... I practice in Family Court every day. If the primary role (of the county court judge) is to preside over Family Court, the focus should be on experience in Family Court.”
She concurred with Revoir and said that – as part of her duties – she spends Mondays and Wednesdays in Family Court
“It’s very simple, more time is spent in family court. I am there. I am there from 9 a.m. to late in the afternoon ... it’s backlogged ... there are an overwhelming number of cases to be dealt with.”
That’s not to say Criminal Court is not important, she added, although in her opinion it “does not take up as much time.”
“It’s very clear to see that Family Court consumes most of the time,” stated diStefano, adding she is the candidate that is “most familiar with” and has the “most experience with” Family Court.
He said he believed that Thursday was the first time in two weeks that Judge Sullivan has overseen Family Court, due to a Criminal Court trial. Fourteen weeks each year, he added, are dedicated to jury trials.
“That is the judge’s primary responsibility ... they call it County Court Judge for a reason.”
McBride stated that Judge Dowd is currently handling the overflow, and while Family Court runs Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Judge Sullivan spends a lot of time in County Court.
“They’re not interchangeable. Family Court is one of the most important responsibilities (the) County Court Judge has ... it’s every bit as important as Criminal Court, although fact based. Criminal Court a lot more complicated ... (we) need a judge qualified to do all three things.”
Question 5. Many in this audience will never come before a judge. Why is it important to them who is seated on the bench?
“We do not live in a perfect world. If we did, we would not need a judge.”
DiStefano said that “everybody knows somebody,” whether it’s a neighbor, friend, relative or co-worker that has been involved in some way with county court.
“It happens, nobody is immune from bad things happening to them.”
A good judge, she added, is a source of pride for any community.
“Judge Sullivan is a good man (and) it’s important that we have a good judge. I hope if I were to be elected that someone says that about me some day, that I was a good woman. It’s a ripple effect ... (we) need to have an effective leader on the bench.”
“Directly or indirectly, this judge will touch your lives ... this judge will affect your life or someone else’s’ life that you know.”
McBride said the community needs a good, stable and qualified candidate, adding that the Chenango County Judge is responsible for justice being done for families and for the court.
“We have some issues in our community ... we need to make sure justice is done for all. The (county court judge) can effect the quality of life we have in our community. You have to make sure you benefit from the most trial experience as a member of Chenango County.”
“In any setting, the vast majority of you will never have to appear before the county court judge, but one should never presume it won’t happen.”
Revoir said that most people appearing before the county court judge “didn’t expect to be there, but they are,” and what happens is likely to “affect and touch upon your life as well.”
He concluded that all voters should educate themselves and their understanding of the county court judge’s duties.
“Everyone, and I mean everyone, has an interest and a stake in this judicial race that is worth protecting.”
All three candidates seemed pleased with the night’s outcome and reminded voters to hit the polls for the primary, which open at noon on Sept. 13. During his closing statement, McBride said he will not pursue the Conservative or Independence party lines on the November ballot if not selected the Republican Party’s candidate.
“I made that promise to myself a long time ago,” stated McBride.
"I think at the end of the forum those who attended realized that these individuals are not only qualified, they were also three very good people. Personally I'm thankful that our candidates are willing to come forward and be of service to all of us who call Chenango County home," said Evening Sun Publisher Dick Snyder.