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The Hon. Judith Claire is one of four new members of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees since last season concluded. A highly acclaimed and recently retired Chautauqua County family court judge, she was twice elected to her post. She was the first woman and first Democrat to win a judicial election in the county. She impacted thousands of local families, and the sensitivity of her work limits her ability to talk specifically about cases. But the passion and innovation which characterized her service are clear to see. 

Tell me about your professional background.

I have been — until my retirement two weeks ago — a family court judge in Chautauqua County for 18 years. I was a practicing attorney altogether for roughly 40 years. I grew up in New England and moved to this area over 30 years ago because my husband, who is also an attorney, grew up here and wanted to move back. I have to say that I had never heard of Chautauqua growing up; no one I knew growing up ever visited here that I knew about. I met my husband while I was working in Albany. At one point, I was headed for Alaska and he was headed home to Chautauqua County. ‘Where is that?’ I said. We just celebrated our 40th anniversary. I have still never been to Alaska.

I was always attracted to litigation as an attorney. I worked in Albany after law school, in the governor’s health planning commission. That now seems like a long time ago. Then I was in private practice in this area for many years. Law firms in this area are not very specialized, so we mostly took whoever walked in the door. However, I would say that over time in private practice, and as I developed a reputation in the field, I got more than 50 percent family law cases. I had an affinity for the work, and I enjoyed it. Many lawyers did not. And it was gratifying. My clients seemed to appreciate it, and they needed an advocate at a most stressful time in their lives. I always found it rewarding.

In New York state, family law judges are elected, and I ran as a Democrat in 1988 for the position of Chautauqua County family court judge. (There was only one authorized for the county at that time.)

I lost, but I ran again, against the same opponent, in 1998 and won, and I was re-elected in 2008. The term of office for family law judges in New York is 10 years.

In the course of your years on the local bench, you achieved national and even international acclaim.

I think we were able to advance the course of family law from the bench. People always used to tell me, ‘I would absolutely hate your job. I’d just hate it.’ But I loved my job. There were horrible, tragic moments, many of them. There were days when I felt almost comatose from the sheer weight of people’s situations and misfortune. But the opportunity to serve people and see them triumph over demons that had plagued them, nothing can compare to that. Nothing.

I not only did not hate my job, I felt that I was extraordinarily fortunate to have an opportunity that most people never have. If you get the lows in life, you also get the highs. I think for most people, things are on kind of a moderate keel. I mean that their highs and lows are somewhat modulated. For us, for me and my team, that one parent or child who is able to turn things around — that carries you through the next 50 cases. Not everyone you work with will be successful. But we were fortunate to see hundreds of people change their lives. I feel I am particularly blessed.

Sometimes even now, when we go to a gas station, or a supermarket, or a restaurant, people will come up and say, “Hi, remember me?” And they will talk about coming to my court and how that changed their life, how much it meant to them. It happened recently here on the grounds at Chautauqua.

You know that frequent Chautauqua visitor and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has worked to limit the practice of electing judges in states. She feels judicial elections can open the door to improper influence. You have gone through the election process three times. What’s your view?

I don’t think the process of electing judges is perfect. It has many, many flaws. But on the other hand, to appoint judges is even worse. When you have elected judges, it is the only opportunity for citizen voters to have a say. When judges are appointed, it is because they are known by someone in the executive branch, for whatever reason. The citizens really don’t have any good way to get information on the judge.

And there is a particular issue with appointed family law judges. You might well get an appointee who actually has little or no interest in family law. He or she may be looking at the position as a stepping stone to some higher office, or maybe they just want to be a judge, period. They may want the prestige, or the clout, or whatever they think goes with that position. In family court, it’s particularly important that judge candidates be knowledgeable and committed to the work.

You ran for countywide office three times on the Democratic ticket. Does that make you a politician?

I was the first woman elected as a county judge in this county, and the first Democrat. Even all these years later, I am still the only Democratic judge ever elected here and the first who happens to be a woman. I’m going to be blunt: I don’t think those things are particularly significant or important. I did participate in the political process, but I don’t view myself as a politician. There is a lot of ugliness in politics. What is important to me is the work we were able to accomplish in the court. Many people are interested in who is the first to do something or the politics of it, because those are familiar aspects. But the unfamiliar aspect is that there is so little written about it.

The first time I ran, I had to spend a lot of time educating voters on what a family law judge does. Many people thought family law court is divorce court. But we don’t do divorce cases in family law court in New York state. I explained that in family court we do domestic abuse cases, child neglect, determination of parental rights, custody and visitation determination. We do adoptions, foster care, petitions for consent to marry for minors. Many people are unaware there is something called termination of parental rights. We do that, too. Grandparents’ rights is a huge issue now. It happened infrequently when we started years ago, but you see grandparents in family court every day now. Almost everyone in the county knows people who are raising a grandchild. We had support magistrates who did paternity and child support cases. I did almost anything else, per statute.

In virtually every other court, issues are raised and decided. In the end, the case is done. There may be an appeal, but that court is done with the matter. In family court, the judicial proceedings are often only the beginning. Family court was often called the revolving door of justice, because plaintiffs and defendants were frequently back in court six months later for the same or similar issues. The underlying issues are not often addressed, so you might have the same family back in court until the child reached the age of majority and left the home.

During my 18 years on the bench, we averaged 9,000 cases per year. For my first 16 years, I was the only family court judge in the county, until the sheer volume of work persuaded the state legislature to authorize a second judge position two years ago. Of those 9,000 cases per year, I handled 4,000 cases personally. I guess that adds up to about 72,000 cases. Of those, there are probably 100 cases that kept me up night after night, and that I’ll likely not forget. Some made the front page of the New York Law Journal, which is not usual. They were often on the front page of the newspaper.

I was on the bench long enough to see five generations of the same family come in with the same issues. My goal was to break that cycle, of addiction or some other kind of dysfunction, and to give people skills to change — and also give them hope for the future. We were successful in many cases. I believe in problem-solving justice. In this, I was influenced by longtime [Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals] Judith Kaye, whose open-hearted practical approach to problems inspired me.

Practically speaking, what does problem-solving justice look like?

By the time I just recently retired, we had launched about 20 initiatives, some successful and some not so much. But our court became a model for New York state, and then a model court nationally and internationally. We accomplished so much of this by collaborating with other agencies, like children’s services and mental health and educators. By going to the kids directly, we were often able to get at problems more directly. Our collaboration didn’t cost a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot of money. But because we worked together, we were able to accomplish so much more.

It sounds like you used the bench as a platform for moral suasion.

Yes, I would agree with that.

You were elected to a second 10-year term in 2008. You retired in 2016. You loved your job and made a difference in people’s lives. What happened?

First, I’m not stepping away from this work, and will continue in this area in a couple of different ways. But it was time for me to leave the bench. I’m in my 60s, at a retirement age for many, and after I had a grandchild, I realized I was really unhappy that I wasn’t able to spend more time visiting. Our kids live far away. I didn’t get enough vacation time to be able to form a relationship with my grandchild. That really began to bother me.

And the work was all-consuming.

Yes. I didn’t want to become bitter, to burn out. They talk about family law court judges having a higher burnout rate than all other judges. It’s very understandable. I guess I wanted to go out full of enthusiasm to go to work each day. I did find over time that I lost patience with attorneys or agency people who didn’t care enough or do their job. They made excuses instead of doing what they should.

You mentioned that you launched more than 20 initiatives on the bench.

It is the bits and pieces of these that changed the delivery of services in our family court, and allowed us to be successful. There was teamwork involving dozens of people. We had one of the first rural family drug treatment courts in the nation. We were able to frame the issue for drug-dependent parents in terms not of jail time but when can you get your children back. We started a court-appointed special advocate program here. There was our trauma-informed care program, the first in New York state. We involved several agencies, and achieved true collaboration. I spoke last summer in Vienna on trauma-informed systems of care. We also started a youth orientation day. It seemed to make sense to introduce young people to the court that will play such a role in their lives. There were many other initiatives, and some have been applied statewide.

It sounds like your style from the bench was collaborative, common sense and compassionate.

Well, I hadn’t thought about it that way, but yes, those were all important elements.

 Talk about your relationship with Chautauqua.

We bought our apartment here in the late 1980s. Our son and daughter came here every summer. When they were old enough to work, they got jobs on the grounds every summer. They love Chautauqua. Our daughter got married in the Hall of Philosophy. She brought her fiancé to visit here for the first time in January. There was snow. We all walked over the Hall of Philosophy, and kind of held our breath as he looked all around with great curiosity. “I can’t think of a more perfect place to get married,” he said. It was the right answer.