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Area judges briefed on LGBTQ issues

By Howard B. Owens


As part of Gay Pride Month, the Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission of the New York Courts is sponsoring a speaker series in courts in the state to help train judges and others in the courts system about gay rights and LGBTQ issues.

Today's speakers in the County Courthouse in Batavia were Brooke Barone, a plainteiff in a landmark case that expanded the rights of non-biological parents, and her attorney, Margaret Canby.

Marc Levine, executive director of the commission explained after the meeting (I had other business to finish and didn't make it on time for the speakers) what the commission is about and about the progress the LGBTQ community has made in the courts over the past 15 years.

"We went across the state doing things and it was beautiful to see the changes in the court system," Levine said.

Levine started a volunteer alliance in 2003 and the commission was formed at the start of this year and during that time, he said, he's seen more people in the court system come out and seen more judges, clerks, and administrators appointed to top positions.

Yesterday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo named the first openly gay man appointed to the Court of Appeals, Paul Feinman.

"This is something we thought was going to be so far off, we didn't even know if we'd live to see that happen," Levine said. 

There were judges from throughout the region at the event, including every full-time judge from Chautauqua County.

The turnout was both significant and important, Levine said.

"Sensitivity Training is a beautiful thing," Levine said. "It's one thing when you look at someone in a textbook; it's a completely different thing when you come and you see people and you listen to them and they become real and you get to see why it's important, and you care and you take that out into the courts with you and set a tone that the courts know that people need to be treated with respect. They are sensitive to the needs of the community."

Levine is clearly a passionate advocate for the LGBTQ. I asked him one question and he spoke uninterrupted for nearly 10 minutes. Here's the full audio (mp3).

Photo: Judge Edwina Mendelson, left, Margaret Canby, Brooke Barone, Marc Levine, Judge Paula Feroleto, Andrew Isenberg, district executive for the Eighth Judicial District.

Recent court ruling could change arraignment procedures for new arrestees

By Howard B. Owens

What Public Defender Gary Horton calls a "throw off line" in a recent court decision could create a headache for Genesee County.

New York Court of Appeals in May ruled in favor of a defendant on a case and mentioned that one of the problems with the defendant's conviction was that he wasn't given adequate representation at his initial arraignment.

It's common in upstate New York -- including Genesee County -- for defendants arrested in off-hours to be given an initial arraignment without their own attorney in court, even a public defender.

The arraignments are pretty routine -- the defendant learns the charges against him and what his rights are going forward -- but the court ruled, according to Horton, that the arraignment is a critical part of the process and defendants should have legal representation.

Horton said he's concerned that the Office of Court Administration will order that no arraignment should take place without the defendant having an attorney in court.

"I didn’t hire attorneys to be on call and basically you would have to have an attorney on call every night and on weekends," Horton told the County's Public Service Committee on Monday afternoon.

Many of the larger counties, according to Horton, have certified holding cells -- allowing the counties to keep arrestees behind bars until the normal business hours of courts and the public defender's office.

The ruling likely won't effect previous convictions, Horton said, because courts would find that a defendant's case outcome would have changed even if there had been a public defender at the initial arraignment. It would be a "harmless error," according to Horton.

State's top judge says juvenile probation system should be changed

By Howard B. Owens

The judiciary should take over administration of probation departments in New York, especially juvenile programs, New York's top judge told a gathering of Genesee County's legal community today at the County Courthouse.

New York State Chief Judge, Hon. Jonathan Lippman, said studies show that the state's juvenile facilities -- where young offenders are housed -- are making the problems of juvenile crime worse, not better.

"The results of those investigations are that those facilities become high schools for crime," Lippman said. "In these detention facilities, kids who didn’t necessarily commit a very high level of crime, not the equivalent of a felony, but a kind of misdemeanor, and you send them there and they come back criminals."

In response to a question from Julie Smith, head of Genesee County's Probation Department, Lippman went further and said not only should juvenile probation be administered by the judiciary-- a change which is already being debated in the State Legislature -- but adult probation, too.

Lippman said the state judiciary wants to ensure that probation leads to better outcomes. He used the judiciary's experience with drug courts as an example of how judges are trained to work with defendants to guide them toward reform rather than a life of crime.

"A judge oversees their recovery from their addiction(s) and makes them useful citizens again instead of having them come into court over and over...until they commit a real serious crime and then we throw away the key," Lippman said.

Among other reforms Lippman discussed is giving the state's judges their first raise in a decade. He said if members of the judiciary don't get raises, it will be harder to attract top-notch legal minds to the bench. 

Lippman also said it's important to keep funding levels up for legal representation for indigent people involved in civil cases.

In lawsuits where a person's very well-being is at stake, such as potentially losing a house, a court-appointed attorney is vital for those who cannot afford one. Lippman says that that person's legal representation is just as important as it is for indigents needing counsel in a criminal-defense case.

In previous years, the state's fund for civil legal services was financed from interest on various investment accounts, but with the dip in the economy those funds have dried up.  So Lippman said the judiciary is setting aside $15 million from its budget to fill the gap.

Below, Stephen Wieczorek receives an award, with his grandson in attendance, from Judge Lippman.

More pictures after the jump.

City Court judges Robert Balbick and Michael DelPlato.

Attorney Bob Fussell asks a question.

Center, District Attorney Lawrence Friedman.

Genesee County Sheriff Gary Maha.

Genesee County Probation Director Julie Smith asking a question.

From left: Hon. Michael Coccoma, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge, Courts outside NYC; Hon. Robert J. Balbick, Batavia City Court Judge; Hon. Paula Feroleto, Administrative Judge, 8th Judicial District; Hon. Eric R. Adams, Genesee County Family Court Judge; Hon. Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge, New York State; Hon. Robert C. Noonan, Genesee County Court Judge; Hon. Sheila DiTullio, Erie County Court Judge; Hon. James P. Punch, Orleans County Judge.

State's Chief Judge paying rare visit to Batavia

By Howard B. Owens

New York's top jurist, Jonathan Lippman, will be in Batavia April 23 for Law Day at the Genesee County Courthouse.

It may be the first time a Chief Judge of the State of New York has visited Batavia.

County Court Judge Robert C. Noonan said a chief judge has never visited Batavia in the 35 years he's been involved in the local legal community, and he doesn't believe a chief judge visited during his father's time practicing law in Batavia, which goes back another 35 years.

"It is possible that this is the first time the Chief Judge EVER came here (of that, I am not certain), but this is a big event and we in the legal community are excited at the prospect of Judge Lippman's visit," Noonan told us in an e-mail.

Noonan anticipates a large turnout, with members from the legal community in Genesee, Wyoming and Orleans counties expected to attend. The event is open to the public, but space will be limited.

The Chief Judge will make a presentation at 9:30 a.m., and the one-hour session is likely to include time for questions and answers in a Town Hall format.

Lippman was appointed to his current position in January 2009 by Gov. David Paterson. Before that, he was Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, First Department. His legal career spans six decades. A full biography is available here.

Recent news items involving the Chief Judge:

  • Lippman wrote the opinion on a unanimous decision limiting the scope of police search warrants, prohibiting, in certain cases, the search of persons who just happen to be in a house subject to search.
  • Lippman has called the lack of pay raises for the past 10 years for State judges "demoralizing."

Grand opening held today for Batavia's Mental Health Court

By Howard B. Owens

Dozens of local officials were on hand for the grand opening ceremony for Batavia's Mental Health Treatment Court, a new program -- one of the first in the state -- of the Batavia City Court.

Judge Robert J. Balbick was the first speaker.

The court is a program for defendants who have serous mental health issues, who need treatment and other services, and who chose to participate in the program instead of having their cases proceed through the regular court process.

The court will accept defendants who, in addition to mental issues, need substance abuse treatment or who have developmental disabilities, or those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.

Today's ceremonies opened with musicians playing guitar and flute (in separate rooms). Besides Balbick, other speakers included Judy Harris Kluger, chief of policy and planning for the court, Paula Feroleto, chief administrative judge, Augusta Welsh, clinical director of Genesee County Mental Health Services, Ed Minardo, Genesee Justice, Gary Horton, public defender and Robert Zickl, assistant district attorney, among others.

For more information on the court, see our previous story.

Lawmakers announce new law for shared court services

By Billie Owens

Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer and Assemblyman Steve Hawley today announced a new law that allows court proceedings for the towns of Elba, Oakfield and Batavia to be held at a single location, which will help save money.

Ranzenhofer says in a press release: “With the passage of the Shared Court Services legislation, the towns of Batavia, Elba and Oakfield have the opportunity to consolidate facilities to provide upgraded services and decrease costs. Residents ... will see savings on their tax bills by sharing one court facility. (This) reflects the willingness of the Elba, Batavia and Oakfield town supervisors to restructure local government to save money for taxpayers."

Hawley says: “We were pleased to facilitate the towns of Batavia, Elba and Oakfield’s request for this legislation. Helping localities streamline and consolidate their efforts -- resulting in more efficient operations while saving taxpayer dollars -- is indeed a positive reflection on the supervisors of the three towns."

All three adjoining towns expressed a need for upgraded court facilities. The new law amends the Uniform Justice Court Act to allow the court proceedings to be held either in the towns of Elba, Oakfield, Batavia or the city of Batavia. The facility must be approved by all three town boards. The law takes effect immediately.

“This is a good example of how a determined effort by community leaders and their respective staffs can provide a much needed and desirable benefit for the people they serve," said Batavia Town Supervisor Gregory Post.

"This partnership demonstrates efficiency in government with unlimited potential to expand benefits to local members of our population, as well as those who visit our VA campus or other attractions our area offers. The fact that so many elected entities can come together and set aside traditional boundaries to save tax dollars (holds) promise that our future here is bright."

Elba Town Supervisor Lucine Kauffman said: "The Town of Elba sees this proposed shared courthouse facility as an innovative way to meet our courtroom safety and functional needs while saving the taxpayers' money. This bill allows us to pursue the shared facility project and improve service to our communities."

Scott Doll indicted by grand jury on a charge of second-degree murder

By Philip Anselmo

Scott F. Doll has been indicted by a grand jury today on a count of murder in the second-degree, Genesee County District Attorney Lawrence Friedman said. Doll is accused of killing his business associate and acquaintance, Joseph A. Benaquist, who was found beaten to death in the driveway of his Pembroke home early Tuesday morning.

An arraignment has been scheduled for Wednesday, March 4, at 2:15 p.m. in county court.

Friedman explained by phone that second-degree murder is "what you usually hear about" in such homicide cases. "That is the intentional killing of another person," he said. That is to be distinguished from first-degree murder, which would involve an intentional killing of a police officer or a judge, for example.

No weapon has been found yet, said Friedman. "But that's not necessary, just like a body is not necessary for a murder conviction. It is certainly something that will be looked for, but we can proceed without it."

It's still too early to say whether or not the case will go to trial. "It's the very beginning of the proceeding," said Friedman.

Doll was found walking along North Lake Road in Pembroke late Monday night "stained with fresh blood." A subsequent investigation led officers to the home of Benaquist, where they discovered the body. Doll was charged with second-degree murder the following afternoon.

Please see our initial post for the full details.

Investigators search for the murder weapon in the Pembroke slaying

By Philip Anselmo

Officers were out at the scene today searching for the murder weapon in the death of Joseph Benaquist, Genesee County Sheriff Gary Maha said. Scott Doll is currently in custody on the charge of second-degree murder for allegedly beating Benaquist to death two nights ago.

Maha informed us that investigators were "searching the area" around Benaquist's home at 683 Knapp Road in Pembroke to "see if (the weapon) had been discarded by Mr. Doll." No weapon has yet been found. Investigators also have yet to determine a motive for the alleged homicide. Benaquist and Doll both served as corrections officers, and they were in an auto sales business together. Maha stressed, however, that a motive "does not need to be established."

The case against Doll is being prepared for a grand jury hearing tomorrow. District Attorney Lawrence Friedman will present the case for indictment. If the jury decides to indict, Doll will then be arraigned in county court.

We haven't yet connected with Friedman for more details on the grand jury appointment tomorrow.

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