Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Warren County: The race for judge

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Nikki Moreschi and Rob Smith are vying to succeed John Hall as Warren County Judge and Surrogate Judge.

Mr. Hall reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in July; he’ll leave office at the end of 2020 after serving 16 years on the County bench.

The Warren County Judgeships pays a salary of $200,400 annually. The term is 10 years.

In this political climate, even a typically staid judge’s race gets contentious, with barbed questions raised over Mr. Smith’s party-switching and over whose experience is more relevant — Ms. Moreschi, who is a sitting Judge, but part-time only, in Glens Falls City Court, or Mr. Smith, behind the scenes only but hands-on in the operation of County/Surrogate’s Court.

Ms. Moreschi won the Democratic primary over Gregory Canale. She also has the Working Families party line.

Nikki Moreschi is the Part-Time Glens Falls City Court Judge, elected to a six-year term in 2016.

Mr. Smith was the uncontested Republican nominee. In primaries he won the Conservative line over Mr. Canale and the Independence Party line over Ms. Moreschi.

Here’s what they had to say to The Chronicle about themselves and the race.

Nikki Moreschi, 49, grew up in Pittsburgh, and graduated from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania and the University of Dayton, Ohio, Law School. She is admitted to practive both in Ohio, where she began her private practice, and in New York.

“We moved here for the mountains,” in 2001, she says. “My husband is from Rochester. Our daughter was born here.”

“My practice has mostly always been litigation, I have 25 years experience practicing as a courtroom attorney. In Ohio I did a lot of malpractice work, representing doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, a lot of complex civil litigation.

“In New York, I had a more general practice at first with Catalfamo & Catalfamo in Greenwich, doing estate, family law. I kept working up through litigation firms and in 2009 I started my own practice.”

In 2013, when Jim LaPann moved away from Glens Falls, she purchased his law practice, which focused on divorce, divorce mediation, estate and family law.

In 2015 she was appointed as Part-Time City Judge by the Glens Falls Common Council, through an application process, when Judge Tarrantino retired and part-time judge Gary Hobbes was “bumped up.”

Ms. Moreschi was elected to a six-year term in 2016. She said she “reshaped” her private practice to focus more on the family and estate aspect. “I didn’t feel comfortable doing criminal and family court cases when I was also a sitting judge on the bench.”

Rob Smith, 52, has been the Warren County Court Attorney for 19 years, three under the late John Austin and the last 16 under his successor Judge Hall.

Mr. Smith says, “I grew up here in Queensbury, graduated in 1987. I went to what used to be ACC, now SUNY Adirondack, transferred to SUNY Albany and went to Albany Law School. I always wanted to be back here in my hometown.”

He was in private practice, first with Bartlett, Pontiff, Stewart and Rhodes in Glens Falls, doing civil and criminal litigation, including a murder trial with Gary Hobbs, as well as estates and trust work.

He said the larger firm “wasn’t a good fit,” so he joined now-State Supreme Court Judge Stan Pritzker’s private practice, doing general law in Washington County.

“I was in private practice for five years,” Mr. Smith says, “and then I took the job where I’m at now with Judge Austin, in 2002. He retired, and Judge Hall became Judge and asked me to stay on.”

Rob Smith has been the Warren County Court Attorney, assisting Judge John Austin and then Judge John Hall for 16 years.

In County Court Mr. Smith said he’s involved with criminal cases, serious felonies, mental hygiene guardianship and appeals from lower courts. In Surrogate Court he works in trusts and estates, guardianship and adoptions, among other issues.

Ms. Moreschi says that as a part-time City Court Judge, “I do everything the full-time judge does. I have my own calendar, and see all the cases that come through….

“Judge Hobbs made me supervising judge for the City’s Domestic Violence Court,” an alternative sentencing program — “the only one like it in the county,” she says.

She also oversees the Misdemeanor Drug Court, which is county-wide, she said. “You follow the treatments and be involved with how the defendant is doing. It’s different than Domestic Violence, which is more about making sure of compliance.”

Domestic Violence Court meets twice a month, with additional conferencing on all the cases, Ms. Moreschi says.

“Then I’m there any days that Judge Hobbs is needed” in roles outside city court.

“Any trials I cover, I write the decisions. I’m in and out of there all the time. It’s a good 20 hours a week, writing decisions, setting up conferences.

“As City Court Judge I’ve presided over 4,000 cases, specifically criminal cases, five trial verdicts and one jury criminal trial. That’s just the criminal aspect. There’s also a whole additional picture of small cases I couldn’t begin to count.” she says.

Ms. Moreschi says, “Through the New York State Judiciary we get an intense training program, 12-hours a day classes yearly and biannually. .When you are the judge, you are the one responsible. If you write an order of protection and it’s reversed, and something happens, that’s your responsibility.”

Mr. Smith acknowledges that he’s not the county judge but, “I am writing all the decisions, and I am handling every piece of paper that comes through here.

“For example if a motion is filed, or if it requires a hearing, I get the transcript, he [Judge Hall] gives me his thoughts, I do the research to see whether what he’s thinking complies with what the law is and write the decision. Or I’ll do some research and find, no, for example, that evidence was inadmissible and here’s why based on case law.

“I draft all of the decisions and he reviews them and makes changes if he thinks that is necessary.”

Mr. Smith says, “My job is to do the work. He signs it all and signs off on it. My job is to make sure the laws are being followed and the issues comply with the law.

“If he’s in trial, there are hundreds and hundreds of cases we do. I’m in the office getting things scheduled, keeping day-to-day operations moving along. A lot of what happens on the bench is an extension of what happens in chambers.”

Mr. Smith adds, “I have sat on the bench as a court-appointed referee in divorce matters. Sitting on the bench is not all that difficult, in my opinion, because most of the work is done before it gets to the bench.”

He said there are times during a trial where something unexpected comes up and the judge will “take a pause” to ask Mr. Smith to research and provide an opinion. He said he’s also sat in during cases where “if something is not going the way they should, I’ve had to chime in.”

If he is elected Judge, Mr. Smith says, “I’d probably split the workload with the court attorney. I take a great pride in digging into the case law.”

“City Court is just different” than the county level, Mr. Smith says. “Here, there is so much more work involved before you even get into the courtroom.” He says, “Sitting on the bench is not the benchmark.”

Ms. Moreschi says, “This is not about achieving any career goal. This is a super important position in the county. Whoever becomes the judge gets to shape the county for at least 10 years. This is about real people and upholding the law, a decade that will be unerased.”

Mr. Smith said, “For me, being able to be the one that makes those final decisions. Giving back to the community I grew up in, I’ve gotten to a point in my life that I want to embrace that responsibility.”

Citing some defining cases

Ms. Moreschi says, “What I get the most out of being a judge is when I am able to see a defendant in the pre-sentencing report, we see what their life was like and all the bad choices they have made. There are two I can think of in the last couple of years, I say this is your last opportunity and then they really rise to the challenge, not only did all they were required but they are 10 times better.”

“But you also can’t be afraid to be harsh.”

She says, “The hardest case was the murder of the mother and daughter,” Crystal Riley, 33, and her daughter Lilly Frasier, age 4, by stabbing in 2017.

“I was working that day, and it was my birthday. I was planning to go to Burlington for dinner when at 3 o’clock I got a call: ‘Judge, you better not leave town.’ It was an all day process, signing search warrants and things. It was 10, 10:30 at night before the arraignment happened.

“It all starts in City Court. I had to get there and unlock the courtroom myself and let everyone, the press in. I still remember the defendant standing in front of me. He showed absolutely no remorse. His eyes were cold. To look in the eye of a person that just hours ago did that. My job was to make sure he knew his rights, and that the process goes forward properly.”

She says she also presided over the arraignment of the men who killed CR Bard’s Kevin Jenks. “These things, search warrant signings in the night. These are the things I do. So I have struggles with those who think I don’t have enough experience.”

Mr. Smith recalls a case involving a 19- or 20-year old who had sexually abused “a couple of young girls.” There was a plea bargain on the table, he says, but the offer was not as tough as I thought it should have been. These victims had gone through a lot.

“I pointed out things in the pre-plea report that were concerning to me, and that this one seemed more egregious” than a similar prior case with a harsher bargain. “Judge Hall agreed and we went back to the bargaining table, and that made me feel really good knowing that justice was better served.”

A long, 30-day trial involving the Finch, Pruyn family trust was “interesting but complicated,” Mr. Smith says. Simplifying, he says it involved one of the four family members objecting to the Trust accounting, which led to all four having to share the $2 million in court and attorney fees.

“It was an old rule,” Mr. Smith says, “but the Judge thought that was ridiculous. We had to uphold it, but I crafted a decision. We were bound by case law, but the case got appealed, and based on that decision, the Court of Appeals changed the law in the State of New York. That was something I was proud of.”

But Mr. Smith says, “Probably my great joy is in Drug Treatment Court, when you see people make real changes because of the work we have done. We provide the mechanism and hold them accountable, but they do the work.”

About party affiliations…

In 2002 then-Warren County Court Attorney Rob Smith changed his affiliation from Republican to Democrat, when Democrat John Hall was elected to the County judgships. Mr. Smith ran twice as a Democrat for Warren County Family Court, unsuccessfully both times.

He changed his enrollment to Republican last fall, before declaring for the County Judge race. He then won the Republican party endorsement over Glens Falls City Court Judge Gary Hobbs, who chose not to challenge in a primary (and switched his enrollment to Democrat).

Ms. Moreschi characterizes Mr. Smith’s change in party as “lying” to the public. “Either he was lying to the voters the two times when he ran as a Democrat, or he is lying to the voters now,” she says.

Mr. Smith says, “Being a personal appointee, when Judge Hall was elected…I registered as a Democrat out of respect for him. He didn’t ask, but there might be rumblings of people in the Democratic Party if he was keeping me because I was Republican.

“I loved this job, and I didn’t care what party I was affiliated with. He didn’t ask me to do it, but a couple of days later he offered me the job. Knowing him now, he would not have required it, but I think he appreciated me doing that.”

Mr. Smith says, “The politics and affiliation meant nothing to me. It was about taking care of my wife and family. I don’t like affiliations, but I don’t make the rules. Seventeen years ago, I didn’t blink. It made zero difference to me.”

“Fast forward to Family Court,” says Mr. Smith. He says that when Paulette Kershko was running as a Republican, she suggested he run as the Democrat. “If you win, you’d be good,” he says she told him.

Because of the rules at the time, he says, he didn’t have time to change his party affiliation. “My plan was, I’ll run. I’ll get name exposure. I didn’t anticipate beating her. But another seat was opening, because we knew Judge Tim Breen was going to be retiring from Family Court. I’d go back to the Republican Party and run for Judge Breen’s position.”

Then, he says, Judge Breen retired just three weeks later, “so there’s no time, no changing parties. I’ve gotta run again, that was the reason. I didn’t think it would make that much difference. I’m born and raised in this community.”

“Where my beliefs are, I don’t align with the Democratic Party today. That might be upsetting to some people. But that sort of miffs me. I’m the same person with the same values. To judge someone just on any affiliation, I’ve never understood.”

Judge candidates: We’ll ease Judge Hall pistol permit rules

Both Rob Smith and Nikki Moreschi have taken positions on the issuing of pistol permits in Warren County that would alter the one-year waiting period required by Judge John Hall to establish residency, and the five-year waiting period Judge Hall requires for those requesting a conceal and carry permit.

Ms. Moreschi says she would do away with the waiting periods. “I don’t intend to enact legislation from the bench. My role as a Judiciary is to uphold and apply the rules. New York State has enacted the laws, and the law is the law. The waiting periods were chambers restrictions that Judge Hall chose to place. That is his discretion, but I wouldn’t choose to continue that.”

Mr. Smith said he, too, would not follow Judge Hall’s practice. He said the one-year waiting period was to guard against temporary or part-time seasonal residents seeking to acquire pistols through Warren County. “People apply here because it’s easier to get it than in New York City. He didn’t want Warren County to become a licensing authority.”

Mr. Smith said he would amend the practice to cover only newcomers, rather than those who can demonstrate full-time residency.

And he said he would not continue the five-year waiting period for conceal and carry permits. “If New York State says they can have the permit, the law is the law,” Mr. Smith said.

Copyright © 2020 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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