In the race for Dutchess County judge, Republican incumbent Peter Forman faces a challenge from Democrat Jessica Segal. Below are their written responses to questions posed by The Current.
Judges are meant to be impartial, so what distinguishes one candidate from another?
■ Forman: In this race, my judicial experience is the distinguishing factor. I have more than 20 years of judicial experience. In the last 10 years as County Court judge, I have presided over dozens of felony trials. During my judicial career, more than 200 of my legal decisions have been reviewed by appellate courts and I was affirmed 93 percent of the time. I am the only judge in Dutchess County who has served in all of our full-time courts: Family, Supreme, Surrogate and County. In addition to my criminal caseload, I have presided over numerous civil matters, including: negligence, medical malpractice, commercial disputes, divorce, and civil commitment of dangerous sex offenders, to name just a few. I have been rated highly qualified by the non-partisan judicial screening panel of the Dutchess County Bar Association.
I have also spent 15 years presiding over drug treatment courts in both Family and County Court. In drug court, an individual charged with a felony who also struggles with addiction is referred by the court to treatment programs to allow the individual to address his or her substance abuse. The individual is monitored over a period of 18 to 24 months by a treatment team that I chair. More than 90 people have graduated from our drug court program in the past five years and become sober and contributing members of society. Depending on the circumstances of each case, a graduate may have a felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor and have the record of conviction sealed.
■ Segal: Voters should look at the candidate’s experience, their record and their reputation. I have 20 years of hands-on experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. I have handled thousands of cases. In that time, not one of my cases or trials has been reversed by an appellate court for misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel or other error of law. This is important for voters to know because when a judge or an attorney has a case reversed, it means that an appellate court found, for example, that someone’s rights were violated. It’s traumatizing for the victims and wastes taxpayer money and court resources when cases have to be redone. Voters should also consider people’s direct experience with the candidate. I am proud to be regarded in the community for my integrity, my balance of strength and compassion, and my commitment to treating all people with dignity and respect.
Should a judicial election be as important to voters as an election for a more visible office, like a mayor? Why?
■ Forman: As a sitting judge campaigning for the fourth time on a county-wide basis, I strongly believe that decisions made by trial courts often affect people’s daily lives more directly than decisions made by officials in the legislative and executive branches of government. Decisions made in a criminal matter, although made in the context of an individual defendant’s case, have an impact on the safety of the community as a whole. Every individual that overcomes his or her addiction through drug court benefits not just the individual but the community as a whole.
■ Segal: Yes. County Court judges make decisions that have a direct impact on the safety of our community. They have the power to decide whether someone struggling with addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder gets jail time or the opportunity to get treatment. They decide if someone is granted a pistol permit and whether that permit is subsequently suspended or revoked. Judges are the embodiment of our Constitution in action, interpreting the rights and privileges it affords each and every citizen of the U.S. Judges are crucial to ensuring that our criminal justice system is fair and treats everyone equally under the law, without personal bias. That is the cornerstone of our justice system. County Court judges serve a 10-year term — every voter in this community should know who is making these decisions and make sure they have a voice in choosing that person.
Discuss, depending on your position, the merits of voters re-electing a candidate with experience serving at the County Court level, or of voters electing a new candidate who could offer a fresh perspective.
■ Forman: The criminal justice system is complicated, both procedurally and substantively. At this moment we are experiencing a major adjustment to the system due to the discovery and bail reform laws enacted by the state Legislature. In advance of the implementation of these laws in January, I chaired several meetings that brought prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and court personnel together to discuss the smooth implementation of these ground-breaking changes. I believe that my 20 years on the bench, as well my experience as prosecutor and law clerk to a County Court judge, helped all stakeholders in the system adapt to the new environment in an orderly manner. Just as the system was adjusting to these new laws, the court system and the nation were struck with the COVID-19 pandemic, from which the court system is just now starting to recover. In these uncertain and trying times, Dutchess County needs my experience and steady hand.
■ Segal: Every judge is elected for the first time at some point. Length of time on the bench should not be the only factor voters consider; the real question is whether that judge should continue serving. Voters should not fear change when the candidate possesses the qualifications required and the values needed to be an effective and fair judge. I have over 20 years of experience handling cases in County Court. I have received the highest rating — highly qualified — and am running because I have the experience, ethics, temperament and judgment to serve the people of Dutchess as their County Court judge. Throughout my career, I have demonstrated a deep understanding of the law and a dedicated commitment to fairness, for which I have been recognized and commended by judges, victims and defense attorneys alike. As someone who has sat on both sides — as a prosecutor and a defense attorney in County Court for 20 years — I have the experience and knowledge that Dutchess County needs and deserves.