Judicial candidates square off at forum

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By Trish Adams
Delaware County Judge Carl Becker (R) and Town of Middletown Judge Gary Rosa (D) each defended their credentials for the position of county judge in a Catskill Mountain News-sponsored, “You Be the Judge” forum last Wednesday evening, hosted in the Arkville Firehouse and broadcast live over WIOX 91.3 FM and MTC Cable Channel 20. Mark Birman moderated the question-and-answer session.

Experience versus temperament was often the theme that night, with 10-year incumbent Becker touting the huge caseload and off-the-clock hours the job requires and Rosa maintaining that he would bring a fair and “even-handed” presence to the bench. The county judge oversees family court, surrogate court, and handles both civil and criminal cases.
In the mostly calm and “judicious” exchange, both Becker and Rosa agreed that the most pressing issue was the acute backlog that the county judge faces every day. Becker noted that over this past decade, the number of family court cases has grown from 2,000 to more than 3,000 a year, and that those cases comprise more than 80 percent of the job. That doesn’t count surrogate court cases (adoptions and estates) or civil proceedings.

Equal status
Rosa took umbrage at Becker’s emphasis on family court work: “To say one court is more important than the other is offensive.” Rosa said that as town judge, he has also had a wide range of experience with family issues. Responding to Becker’s contention that Rosa has had no family court experience for years, he said, “I’ve tried cases in family court, some with Becker. You don’t have to be there every day to know the heartache that happens. It’s not about how many hours you’ve logged.” 

Becker introduced himself as someone who might be “an unknown quantity” in the Margaretville area, although he has lived for four decades in Delaware County. Becker spoke of his two decades as a social services lawyer before he was a judge, prosecuting cases in the same court where he now presides. Becker also noted that the legislature regularly “tinkers” with family law, especially when it comes to foster care, and now requires the county judge to review the cases of about 90 children in the system every six months. 

Both Rosa and Becker agree that most crime (and family issues) in court is driven by substance abuse, but there were some differences when they spoke of “drug court,” an alternative to incarceration sometimes offered to non-violent drug offenders. Becker emphasized that drug court gives offenders an opportunity to wrestle with their addiction while staying connected to community, and that those programs cost the taxpayer far less than incarceration. Rosa highlighted the drug court’s high “relapse” rate, noting that it’s supposed to serve as “an opportunity, it’s not meant to give someone five or 10 opportunities,” he noted.

The testiest moments came as a result of the term limits subject, which Rosa raised several times throughout the evening. Because county judges must retire at age 70, Judge Becker would only be able to serve six of the term’s 10 years. At that time, the Rosa campaign has suggested, the judgeship could become a political appointment by whomever is governor. Rosa went so far to say that because he could serve the full 10 years, it would help “keep politics out of it [the position.]”
Becker clarified that he could serve during his 70th year so an election could be held to seat the next judge, and took visible umbrage at Rosa’s suggestion that his replacement could become a political football. Becker also became annoyed at Rosa’s comment that he had heard from gun dealers that Becker was restricting some pistol permits for younger applicants or for other “arbitrary” reasons. Becker shot back that someone must have “fed him a line,” and claimed that, of hundreds of permits he has issued, only nine were restricted.

The candidates also offered a differing view of the weight of the responsibility between their two courts. While Rosa maintained that the type of cases he sees in town court (misdemeanors and the preliminary motions in felony cases) “is the same process, same size jury” as the cases tried in the county, and that having the responsibility of sending someone to jail is just as serious as sentencing someone at a higher level. Becker immediately fired back: “I have visited the [prisons in] Elmira and Auburn where I put the people I sentence and the difference between those places and [the jail in] Delhi is enormous. There is far more at stake between sending someone to the state penitentiary for 25 years versus one year in Delhi,” to which Rosa replied, “Going to jail for a year is a big deal, time in jail is time in jail.”

The candidates also showed an almost diametrical difference in their job “approach,” when Arnold Weiss asked the candidates why they even wanted the job. Becker noted that he commutes to work 20 miles each day and relishes tackling the work, saying, “I may not be the first one there in the morning, but I’m invariably the last to leave.” He also described “The feeling you get when you watch two well prepared lawyers present a case; I have the best seat in the house.” To which Rosa responded that the job “wasn’t about enjoying yourself, it’s about giving something back, giving something to the community,” presenting the job from a sense of civic duty in contrast to Becker’s sense of vocation and calling.

In their closing arguments, Rosa maintained that “What I have to offer is even temperament and patience; we’ve had the same training, the same [kind of] law schools. It comes down to personality. Listen and consider: it’s not based on how much experience you have.” 

Becker reiterated how he had approached the contest with all honesty, saying “I have served the people of Delaware County with honor and distinction,” and that just as he asks of those in his court, he has “told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” 

Learn more about each of the candidates in exclusive candidate profiles in this edition.