A State Supreme Court post can be found on top of the ballot but not often at the top of the agenda for voters.
Two lawyers are campaigning for an open seat, looking to serve a 14-year term and preside over civil cases ranging from divorces to personal injuries in the eight Western New York counties of the 8th Judicial District. A handful of State Supreme Court justices also handle criminal cases.
Both candidates on Tuesday’s ballot call it a challenge to get voters interested in the race, since judicial candidates maintain they are prohibited from saying how they might rule on issues.
But both Paul B. Wojtasezk and Mark A. Montour have plenty to say about their backgrounds and legal experience. Both are University at Buffalo School of Law graduates.
Wojtaszek, 47, of North Tonawanda, has been a lawyer for 23 years, the past 16 years as a law clerk to State Supreme Court Justice Russell P. Buscaglia.
Wojtaszek, running on the Republican and Independence lines, has also been a Niagara County legislator for six years and previously served as an assistant state attorney general and a Niagara County assistant district attorney.
Montour, 55, has been an attorney for 30 years, and has served as a Lancaster town justice for six years.
Montour, running on the Democratic, Conservative and Working Families lines, is also an acting city judge in Batavia and Buffalo.
The Erie County Bar Association rated Wojtaszek well-qualified and rated Montour qualified.
The Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission for the 8th Judicial District rated Wojtaszek highly qualified and rated Montour qualified.
The Western New York chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of New York State rated both Montour and Wojtaszek highly qualified.
The Niagara Bar Association rated Wojtaszek superior.
The Minority Bar Association of Western New York rated Montour well-qualified.
Both candidates ran unsuccessfully for State Supreme Court justice in 2010. Wojtaszek finished sixth among 10 candidates and Montour finished seventh. The top five vote-getters won seats that year.
Why are they running again?
Both cite an interest in public service as a way to give back to the community.
“I’ve been a public servant since I was admitted to the bar in 1991,” Wojtaszek said. “I believe the judicial branch is a separate and equal branch of government, but more importantly it’s the pinnacle of the legal profession.”
He said his experience gives him “a unique opportunity to give back to the community.”
“I believe the law is the great equalizer, and that’s what I would do as a judge,” he said.
Montour said his interest in community service goes back to his upbringing.
“My father, my family encouraged us to give back to the community,” he said, noting that he was a Lancaster town councilman for 12 years before he became a town justice.
As far as qualifications, Wojtasek said there is no better training for a state judgeship than to have been law clerk to a State Supreme Court justice for 16 years.
“I’ve been involved in every facet of the decision-making process and all types of cases – criminal, civil, special proceedings,” he said.
“It’s so important that judges have the right kind of experience. It’s not enough to have been a town court justice,” Wojtaszek said, noting the town judicial position has different duties than those for a state judge and doesn’t require a law degree.
Montour said that while town and city courts handle misdemeanor crimes and State Supreme Court handles felonies, he has presided at felony arraignments and felony hearings before such cases move on to state court.
His private legal practice based in Elma handles a wide variety of cases, from misdemeanors and felonies to wills, real estate and Seneca Nation surrogate cases, Montour said.
“I’m a Native American,” he said, noting that he is a member of the Mohawk tribe. “I do pro bono work for the Senecas. It’s another way of me giving back to the community.”
He said he serves as legal counsel to Seneca Nation surrogate judges on the Cattaraugus and Allegany territories.
“I do a lot of traveling,” he said. “It keeps me busy.”
If elected, Montour would be the first Native American state judge in New York.
“Out of 524 state judges at the State Supreme Court, Appellate Division and Court of Appeals levels, not one is a Native American,” he said.
Among achievements Wojtaszek cites are rulings in three criminal cases he was involved in that were unanimously affirmed by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. One involved the emergency exception to the Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant. Another concerned the seizure of weapons not listed in a search warrant. And the third regarded the territorial jurisdiction of police and peace officers.
As a Niagara County legislator since 2008 – his third two-year term expires Dec. 31 – Wojtaszek supported a law keeping sex offenders no longer under supervision from living near schools, playgrounds and other places where children gather. He cited his work as an assistant district attorney prosecuting sex offenders in Niagara County for five years in helping craft the legislation.
He also cited the County Legislature’s approval of a resolution in February urging the state to repeal the new gun law, making Niagara County the second county in the state to do so.
Wojtaszek said he understands a judge’s role is to interpret the law and apply it, not to legislate from the bench.
Montour takes pride in the drug court he started in the Town of Lancaster after his first election as town justice.
He described it as a collaborative effort with police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Kaleida Health, Renaissance House and Kids Escaping Drugs.
“The purpose is to deal with the underlying addiction that led to the criminal activity,” he said.
Wojtaszek grew up in a family of 12 children in North Tonawanda. Three of his siblings are also lawyers, including Henry F. Wojtaszek, former Niagara County Republican chairman, and Niagara County Family Court Judge Kathleen Wojtaszek-Gariano, who was elected in 2011.
His father, Thomas E. Wojtaszek, 86, is one of the founding members of the Conservative Party in Niagara County in the 1960s. But the younger Wojtasezk narrowly lost the Conservative endorsement to Montour on an 11-9 vote in September.
Montour, one of seven children, grew up in the Town of Tonawanda, where his father worked at the Chevrolet plant. He is the only one of his siblings to become a lawyer.