In Delaware County, the chance to elect the county's highest judge only comes around once every ten years. (Just as cicadas burst from the ground every decade or so, so do county judicial candidates. Both spend their brief time in the sun making as much noise as possible.)
Delaware County is small enough to have only one county judge. It's a big position. If you get charged with a felony, need to settle an inheritance issue, or have a custody dispute, you're in the county judge's court.
For the last decade, Judge Carl F. Becker has occupied the job, presiding over a growing caseload of thousands of cases every year. Becker, who lives in Stamford, is running for a second term, and has been campaigning as a Republican with a record of establishing drug treatment court and handling complex cases in family court. Before becoming county judge, he spent 28 years working as an attorney in the Delaware County Department of Social Services, representing the county in family court cases.
His opponent is Gary Rosa, who has served as judge in the town of Middletown in eastern Delaware County for the past 20 years. Rosa, who lives in New Kingston, is running as a Democrat and an Independent on a platform that emphasizes his judicial temperament and experience as a town judge.
The two candidates will debate each other at two public forums before the election on November 6. Their first debate is tonight: Wednesday, October 24 at 7pm at the Arkville Fire Hall, sponsored by the Catskill Mountain News. The second debate is next Tuesday, October 30 at 6:30pm at the Walton Theatre, sponsored by the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce.
The Watershed Post talked to Becker and Rosa about the leading issues facing Delaware County's judge. You can see their comments about various topics arranged by subject below.
Watershed Post: What is the main difference between you and your opponent?
Carl Becker: Experience and leadership. I have always been involved in community service, and, in particular, community service focused on young people. I’ve been a Scoutmaster. I’ve been a Sunday school teacher. I've been involved in Rotary's Youth Exchange Program forever. I’m still involved in that. I'm involved in the local Boy Scout Council. I deal with children a lot. For 28 years before I went on the bench, I was an assistant county attorney assigned to the social services department, so I was dealing with children who were in really difficult situations. So I spent all of that time dealing with children and in the family court. I was here virtually every day.
Gary did some family court work when he first came back to Delaware county, but after about four years, he drifted away from it. Currently, he cannot come into my family court and represent a child in an abuse or neglect proceeding or in a custody proceeding because he has never taken the training. He’s dealing with traffic tickets and DWIs -- the small stuff. The difference between what he’s doing and what I'm doing is the difference between flying a single engine prop plane and a 747. It’s just a completely different skill set.
Gary Rosa: I think the biggest difference between us is judicial temperament. There are lots of people out there who have appeared before both of us. I don't lose my temper on the bench. There are lots of cases where he has. I try to be as patient as possible. I don't lecture from the bench. That's not what a judge is supposed to do. A judge is supposed to give everyone a fair shot. Life isn't fair, but a judge is. Judges are human -- they have bad days too. But not from the bench. I think that's a big difference. One of the other differences -- and he doesn't like to acknowledge this, necessarily -- is that he can't serve out the 10-year term. Under the New York State constitution, he can serve a maximum of six years.
WP: When I talk to people about the court system in Delaware County, I often hear that folks think it is an old boy’s club, and that the lawyers and the judges are all in it together. What do you think of that perception of the courts?
Becker: That is so not true. Anybody who comes to court and doesn’t get what they think they deserve is looking for a reason why they didn’t get what they think they deserve. And it’s easy to say, "Well, It’s the lawyers and the court. They’re in it together." Because most people do not understand the law. They don’t understand what the rules are. And some of them don’t want to. They are so focused on their individual wants and needs that they don’t want to get confused. I’ve seen people come in who will lie to me when the truth would serve them better because they don’t know what the rules are that govern the decision-making process. I can’t give legal advice, and I repeatedly tell them, "I can’t say. I can’t tell you that." I spend a lot of time explaining people’s rights to them.
Rosa: I hope it’s not warranted. I hear it, too. I think, for the most part, it is not true. I do think that that sense of it comes from two sources. One is family court, one is the criminal court. I think where the perception comes in from the criminal court is from people who are indigent and who have assigned counsel. They seem to think they’re not getting good representation from assigned counsel. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think that assigned counsel take their jobs seriously and are professionals. These are private attorneys that are taking these cases on for less than if it was a client who was actually paying the bill. But there’s a certain professional pride there, and I think that, for the most part, they do do their jobs. If you have a defendant and you don’t have a great case, you’re looking to make a plea bargain. Those defendants who go to jail, even if it’s for two-to-four years instead of five-to-ten years, they're [not going to be happy]. It's unfortunate, but it's not a good old boy network. The other place is family court, where there's a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" perception. I think emotions are really strong there. It's human nature, certainly, and it's the judge's job, frankly, to try to dispel.
On personal connections and recusal:
Becker: I’m fortunate in that specific regard, which Gary, if he gets this job, is not. I don’t have any relatives here. It’s six degrees of consanguinity that you have to watch out for. There will have to be a whole new list of people who you have to watch out for [if Rosa is elected]. We don’t have the conflicts we used to have. When I took the bench, everything from [the Department of Social Services], I couldn’t touch. They sent a family court member [judge] from Binghamton every Friday [to hear those cases]. But in time, all those conflicts have worked themselves out.
Rosa: It’s simple. I have to recuse myself. If there’s a family member who comes before me, I have to say, "OK, I can't handle the case." And then it gets shifted over to another judge. That generally means that one of the Otsego County judges would have to handle the case. They’re here daily handling cases now. I frankly don’t see that as an advantage for [Becker] that he has no relatives here. He’s not from Delaware County, he has no roots in Delaware County. I don’t know that he fully appreciates what it's like to be from Delaware County.
On drug court:
Becker: I’m very passionate about [drug court], and I’m very well-trained. We’re talking about hundreds of drug cases. It’s more than a third of the caseload. [In addition], half of what’s going on in family court is drug-related in one way or another -- either alcohol, or heroin or cocaine or oxycodone -- the list is endless. To keep up with what’s going on, it’s a lot of training. You have to have a great deal of patience to deal with hits kind of issue
Drug court begins where the criminal court ends. It’s intense post-conviction supervision and treatment as an alternative to incarceration. It reduces the burden on the taxpayers. You’re paying for people to be in treatment rather than in prison. Treatment is one tenth of the cost of incarceration. The savings are huge. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars even in a place like Delaware county. At the federal level, they see this as a way of reducing the taxpayer burden.
It saves hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in two ways: First, it reduces the incarceration rate. That is, the people going to the country correctional facility or prison. That’s about a $60,000-per-year bill for those folks. Our drug treatment court expenditure is about $5,000 to $6,000 per year. Also, the people who come through drug court have twice as good a chance, five years out, of being drug-free and crime-free. Our stats bear it out.
Rosa: If you listen to Judge Becker's radio ads, you come away with the suggestion that without him, there's no drug court. That's not true. You also come away with the suggestion that drug court was his idea. That's not true. Drug court is a statewide initiative. The first meetings and the first discussion and the first work to create the drug court in Delaware County happened before his campaign. He capitalized on something that was told to the courts by the Office of Court Administration: "Ye shall do this."
I support drug court: There's no question about that. I think the courts have an obligation not only to decide cases, but to help people if we can. If people are appropriately qualified for that opportunity in drug court, they should be given that opportunity. But I also think that if they demonstrate that they can't handle that opportunity, they shouldn't get it.
Some of the people that I talk to aren't as favorable towards drug court as Judge Becker. There's a lot of people out there -- they aren't that verbal about it -- who question whether it works. There's a lot of people out there who think, "You did the crime, now it's time to do the time." But I do support drug court, because I do think it provides a very valuable and viable alternative to incarceration.
On family court:
Becker: In the last 15 years in family court, there’s been just a complete transformation of the rules and the law that applies in family court generally. There’s a great deal of experience and knowledge that I have that I brought with me. This is stuff that I don’t even know if Gary even knows about. I’ve done trainings with other lawyers, all on family law and family-court related issues. Between this and drug courts, it’s 80 percent of my time. The criminal courts and the Supreme Court is about 20 percent of my time.
[In family court], it’s my job to blow the whistle. And I’ve done that. I've told the Social Service Department, "You are not doing what you’re supposed to do in this case." You have [six-month reviews of children in foster care] so that you can see where the case is going, and see where you are in compliance. There is a whole body of law [on that]. This is not in the average attorney’s repertoire. Even the folks who do this kind of work routinely [have trouble with it]. And we’re talking about somebody who hasn’t done this work for 16 years.
I like Gary. I think he’s a good real estate lawyer. He’s a nice friendly guy. But when it comes to doing what you need to do in a family court, this is a really difficult environment for a lot of people. If you’ve elected not to be here, and not to subject yourself to the turmoil for a long period of time, how good are you going to be at it if you simply get dropped in the middle of maelstrom?
I get criticized by moms who think I’m pro-dad, and dads who think I’m pro-mom. The reality is, I’m not pro-neither. I’m pro-child. I’m listening to find out who's the best parent. I don’t think that’s a decision that rests on gender. I’ve seen some really good dads, and I’ve seen some really awful dads. I’ve seen some really good moms, and I’ve seen some really awful moms. Gender doesn’t have anything to do with it, unless the child is being breast-fed.
The only way that I know that I'm doing the right thing is that I’m getting shot at from both sides. But for the most part, I think people view me as fair. I know there are people out there who will vehemently disagree with that. They’re entitled to their opinion. But I really, conscientiously, try to be fair.
Rosa: When he says I have no experience in family court, that’s just not true. I’ve tried cases in family court against Judge Becker. I have not been in family court in front of him more than once or twice in past 12 years, but you don't have to be in family court every day to know what goes on in family court. You don’t have to be in family court to understand the heartache that goes on there. You don’t have to be in family court at all to know what the law says and what the statutes are. I’ve got 20 years of experience of listening to people and telling the truth.
We don’t select our judges based on how many times somebody has been in a particular court. Frankly, I have more family court experience than Judge Becker had criminal court experience when he was selected. He had a part-time private practice, which is essentially the same kind of work that I do with real estate matters. What’s important for a judge in family court is that you’ve got a judge who’s got the appropriate temperament: patient and fair. It’s not about how many cases they've handled. If that’s how we selected our judges, we wouldn’t have to vote for them at all. We could just put a counter on the courtroom door.
On the workload for the Delaware County judge:
Becker: We’re running ahead of the statewide statistics in terms of the number of family court cases. In the last ten years, we’re pushing a 50 percent increase. We’ll go from 2,000 cases to over 3,000 this year. My predecessor, Judge [Robert L.] Estes, was advocating very loudly for a second judge before I got here. I have continued that effort for a second judge. We need one: there’s no doubt about it. I share the caseload at the Supreme Court level with another judge.The amount of work that one person is expected to do is [large], but we get it done. This is about a 55-hour-a-week job.
Sometimes we have to push cases faster than we’d like, because there are things that people want to say. They don’t like being told, "You’re time’s up." I try really hard not to do that. Right now, we're projecting between 3,050 and 3,100 cases [for 2012]. About 30 percent of those will be child support, which is initially handled by a support magistrate, not me. The rest of the stuff is mine. The [daily] calendars run on average 20 to 25 cases long, 3 cases to a page. That's roughly 60 cases per day.
Rosa: The caseload is very large. [Judge Becker] has got his advertisements in the paper saying that he is handling the most cases of any judge in Delaware County history. That's technically true, but it's spin. It's not a matter of the judge: It's how many cases get filed. What does that have to do with the judge? But if there are more cases being filed than being resolved, that's a problem.
One of the big complaints I hear as I go around the county is adjournment of cases without a decision from the judge. You can't resolve a case that way. That's the problem. People come to the court because they can't resolve their problems. The judge has to make a decision. The complaint that I've heard is about the cases that he hasn't decided.
Should we have a second judge in Delaware County? Most counties have two. The political reality is that it's not going to happen.
It's a lot of work, but I work a lot of hours now. I think there's some room for efficiency.
On mandatory retirement:
Becker: I want to talk a bit about mandatory retirement. Gary has made a point in his campaign that he can serve a full term and that I can’t because I’ll reach mandatory retirement age, which is 70. So I’ll make it until 2018. He’s made a big point in his campaign about this. I’ve been told that he’s been telling people that if I get elected and hit mandatory retirement, the governor will appoint a successor. It’s not true. What happens is, when a judge hits mandatory retirement, he can serve until the end of the year when he hits 70. It creates a natural end of term.
[Gary is] running for a ten-year term. I’m running for 6-year term. That’s the simple way of explaining it. In November before I’m done, there’s an election. I don’t know how he and his campaign came to the conclusion that the governor appoints my successor.
Rosa: What I have told people when they've asked is that if [Becker] were to retire before December 31, the governor would appoint an interim successor. There's still going to be a special election no matter what. If in the year he turns 70, he retired on June 1, the governor would appoint an interim judge until December 31 with the special election being held in November. If, however, he says, "I'm going to retire on Dec. 31," then he will serve until his elected successor takes the post. It's up him, and his health.
Catch Carl Becker and Gary Rosa in person on Wednesday, October 24 at 7pm at the Arkville Fire Hall, sponsored by the Catskill Mountain News. Their second debate is next Tuesday, October 30 at 6:30pm at the Walton Theatre, sponsored by the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce.