Hugh Reynolds: Choosing a judge

The columnist Reynolds.

The columnist Reynolds.

The Democratic primary for Family Court judge in Ulster County this year features two lawyers experienced at Family Court and a newcomer who says his life experience and community involvement will provide fresh perspective. Kevin Bryant and John Beisel of Kingston and Gilda Riccardi of Saugerties presented themselves to party faithful at a forum hosted by the Esopus Democratic Committee last week. Chairman Roscoe Pecora presided, with about 50 people in attendance.

Marianne Mizel and Anthony McGinty are the present incumbent judges in Family Court. The November election will fill the new third judgeship, created by the state legislature earlier this year.

Court magistrate Beisel and court attorney Riccardi, with almost 40 years of experience in Family Court between them, indirectly contrasted their judicial records with that of Bryant, who specializes in criminal law but touts his life experience and community involvement.

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“I haven’t handled a single case [in Family Court]. Everybody knows that,” Bryant said. “I will bring a fresh set of eyes to the court.” Given the restrictions on what judges running for election can say under the judicial canon of ethics, how he would do that was not exactly clear. Some welcome the idea of a judge mingling with the masses once in a while.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican nominee Keri Savona in the Nov. 4 election. All four candidates are also contesting the Independence Party nomination at primary. Savona has the Conservative Party endorsement. The Working Families Party is supporting Bryant.

The candidates appeared together only a day after a few people staged a protest against court operations in front of Family Court headquarters on Lucas Avenue. “Join us as we expose the constant rotating door keeping parents in Family Court with taxpayer dollars with no resolve,” read a flyer urging participation.

Unsurprisingly, the old hands downplayed the protest, suggesting that seating a third judge in January would help ameliorate problems. Bryant, the outsider, didn’t finger a system run by incumbents.

Riccardi, who said she was working in the back of the building when the mid-morning protest was held, offered a touch of sympathy and a dose of perspective. “Somebody is generally going to be unhappy with a judge’s decision,” she said of a court that is often called upon to split the baby, or at least access to the baby. “The court is busy every second of the day. That’s the reason there are backlogs and delays. There are just too many cases. That’s the nature of the beast.”

Not that people are entirely satisfied with the kind of (criminal) justice they get at what locals call “1818,” the year the present county courthouse was opened. Some years ago an outdoor sculpture event featured a giant screw on the front lawn of the courthouse. Passers-by were amused, but courthouse denizens didn’t see the humor in the metaphor.

Yet to be determined is the creation of space for the new judge and staff, a county responsibility. The county is expected to extend its lease at the 16 Lucas Ave. courthouse for at least a year. The new judge will take office Jan. 1.

More about the candidates

Bryant, 45, with experience both as a prosecuting and a defense attorney, readily admits his lack of practice in Family Court. As evidence of his ability to relate to issues facing today’s youth, he has cited his work some 20 years ago as a counselor and a supervisor at the former Cabrini Home in West Park for troubled boys. He has also talked about advising young people who appear in the courts he serves. A product of divorce, he said, “I know what it is like to come from a broken home.”

Bryant, a troubled teenager when his parents separated, was set on the proper path with advice from, among others, the late Judge Vincent Bradley and minister James Childs. He allowed he would “have the steepest learning curve of us all,” but said that he was up to the challenge. “Finishing 573 out of 592 in my [Kingston High School] class and accomplishing what I have made me believe there isn’t a single challenge I can’t overcome,” he said. He is obviously a late bloomer.

Beisel and Riccardi took the position that experienced people like themselves (nobody mentioned Savona’s experience as court attorney for Family Court for the Department of Social Services) would “hit the ground running” in January.

In terms of experience, Beisel seemed to have the edge over Riccardi, citing “over 40,000 cases” handled during 20 years in court. As court support magistrate over the past 15 years, Beisel, a Port Ewen native, is given the full authority of a judge, except for sentencing.

“It’s in the state constitution that only elected judges can send a person to jail,” he said.

Riccardi said she has “sat at the right hand” as Democratic Judge McGinty’s law clerk since 2006, handling “thousands” of cases. The clerk, as court attorney, does research for the judge, interviews for casework, advises the judge and writes briefs.

Bryant, perhaps inadvertently, attested to Riccardi’s claim of proximity to the throne. “Other lawyers have become judges without judicial experience,” he said in defense of his record. “The first thing you do is get yourself a good law clerk.”

Common sense suggests we don’t judge candidates on the basis of just one 90-minute faceoff at a candidate night. Some candidates present better than others. In any event, there’s a lot more to a candidacy than just the ability to talk on one’s feet.

The primary is three weeks from next Tuesday. In the Esopus snapshot on this sprint to the finish, the incumbents did a better job of presenting themselves than the challenger. Bryant’s story is compelling, his presentation of it less so.

Beisel, 48, showed more fire in the belly, describing in emotional terms in his opening remarks how much it meant to him to be a judge in a court where he has worked for most of his adult life. “To me, this is much more than just a job,” he said.

Riccardi, 60, a former nurse supervisor, came across as bright and practical, with a good dose of empathy.

Low-key Bryant displayed the passion and commitment it will take to conquer this latest challenge in a life that not too many years ago could have been derailed as a case in Family Court.

Advantage to the candidate with the most lawn signs.

Dealing with discordance

What worried some Democratic regulars in an insider audience about evenly divided among the candidates was what one termed “demographic discordance.” The candidates will pull from their respective bases on Sept. 9, but will the party reunite in time for the general election, less than two months later?

There are always plants in the audiences at these candidate affairs, placed to plague the other side with embarrassing questions. One such, with Bryant as the target, was so ridiculous as to be almost funny.

There are 2 comments

  1. Dan Conna

    More than anything else; Family Court deals primarily with child support and juvenile offenders not yet under the jurisdiction of the adult criminal justice system. Kevin Bryant,as an attorney, deals with juvenile, youthful and adult offenders, face-to-face on a regular basis.This legal experience is an essential item for family court judge since family court justices can make or break a juvenile offender future path in life. As a member of the Ulster County Democratic Committee; I urge fellow Democratic Party voters to select Kevin Bryant for Family Court Judge in the September 9th Democratic Party Primary.

  2. Pete Perry

    To be clear, the comment by Dan Conna is based upon entirely incorrect information. Juvenile delinquency and PINS cases make up only a tiny fraction of the cases heard in Family Court. In fact, it is less than 3% of the caseload. Equally incorrect is the suggestion that Mr. Bryant has legal experience in such matters. He himself freely acknowledges that he has none, suggesting that he has other life experience which will substitute.

    Mr. Conna is correct about one thing. A large portion of the Family Court caseload has to do with child support, approximately 40% of the filings. I am supporting John Beisel for Family Court Judge. He has been presiding over the great majority of those cases in Ulster County Family Court as Support Magistrate for nearly sixteen years. Prior to that, he regularly represented juvenile offenders in Family Court as well. John Beisel has actual and relevant experience for the position.

    While I respect and fully support a voter’s right to support the candidate of his or her choosing, each voter’s choice should be based on accurate information and truthful representations. Uninformed and/or inaccurate statements are simply irresponsible or worse.

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