HUDSON — County Judge and Acting Supreme Court Judge Jonathan D. Nichols will seek election to the office of Supreme Court in New York’s Third Judicial District.
State Supreme Court justices are elected to 14-year terms and mostly handle civil cases, declaratory judgments and divorces throughout the seven counties of the Third District.
Judge Nichols, 53, a Republican, was appointed to the county bench in 2003 by Governor George Pataki and ran for the seat uncontested later that year. He has 2 years remaining on his 10-year county term. During his time on the bench he has heard cases in county Criminal Court, Family Court, Surrogate Court and Supreme Court. He has served as an acting Supreme Court justice since 2005. To promote his candidacy, he spoke about his work in an interview April 15.
In addition to his work in the county’s civil and criminal courts, Judge Nichols also presides over the county’s Regional Drug Treatment Courts in the Criminal, Family, and Juvenile courts, and the Vettrak program, which provides drug treatment and mentoring for non violent offenders. He initiated the concept of streamlining the process by uniting all substance abuse cases and hearing each group sequentially on Monday afternoons. He set up his courtroom to enable participants to speak directly to him and other participants that include social workers, law enforcement representatives, treatment counselors and public defenders.
He says he follows each case closely and supports each participant’s success by leading a round of applause. He believes that the substance abuse and addiction treatment courts help people get their lives back on track in a way that is more expedient and less disruptive, and less costly to the county.
Participants must submit to drug testing, go to school and counseling and abide by other stringent rules including probation. “If they qualify for drug treatment court, they are able to have earlier intervention and able to return to society sooner. Some relapse, but if they succeed, it’s a win-win,” he said.
One of the most satisfying parts of his job is helping children from dysfunctional homes. When these children have been either neglected or abused, he places them in foster homes, but he said, “It’s gratifying when families are reunited after receiving services and equally gratifying when children get placed for adoption.” In his courthouse office he prominently displays photos, drawings and thank-you notes from children whose adoptions he has presided over.
“The most difficult thing we do is when you have to remove a child from a family. I’ve never lost sight of the fact that every time I take the bench and make a decision I affect somebody’s life,” he said.
While on the bench, Judge Nichols has decided some high profile cases, including the recent case against waste hauler Salvatore Cascino for illegal dumping on his 300-acre property in Copake, the Taghkanic voter registration case that set precedents in election law and upheld the right of second home owners to vote where they chose, and a 2008 Hudson gang assault case.
For Judge Nichols, part of the pleasure of the job is the variety of casework. In addition to jury trials, there are non-jury cases that require some additional skills. “I have to assess credibility and make a determination just like a jury would.”
Overall, he said of his legal career, “I haven’t done anything that as a lawyer and a judge that I truly didn’t enjoy. I’ve been fortunate.”
A native of Philmont, he received his BA and law degrees from Western New England College in Springfield, Mass., where as a graduating senior, he received an American Bar Association Award in land use planning. He graduated from college with honors for his work in legal research and writing. After graduation from law school in 1984 he passed the bar exams in New York and Massachusetts before working briefly as a law research assistant with at the Third District Appellate Division and then becoming clerk for Columbia County Supreme Court Justice John G. Connor in Hudson. Judge Connor was the last Columbia County judge to serve on the state Supreme Court in the Third District.
After a two-year clerkship, he joined the Hudson law firm Connor, Curran & Schram, where he represented clients in civil, criminal, matrimonial, and family cases in federal, state county, family and surrogate courts and represented the towns of Claverack, Hillsdale, Philmont, and Taghkanic. He served as county attorney from 2002 to 2003.
He has taken part in legal education for judges, completing judicial training for family, juvenile and supreme courts, and has served as a panelist for judicial training seminars in matrimonial law and civil court law. He has judged moot court competitions and has served on the boards of the Columbia Greene Community Foundation, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Columbia Greene Humane Society, and the Columbia County Association in the City of New York. He volunteers with the Catamount Ski Patrol and the Boy Scouts, has taught skiing at Jiminy Peak, and serves on a committee for the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation Fund for Columbia County.
He will seek endorsements from Conservative and Independence parties as well as the GOP in the seven counties that make up the Third Judicial District: Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Sullivan and Ulster. Delegates from the district will choose candidates in September. During the coming months Judge Nichols plans to appear at political gatherings and set up a campaign committee.
Judicial candidates are screened by a 15-person, bipartisan Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission, on the basis of questionnaires. In the past the commission ranked Judge Nichols as “highly qualified.”
Judge Nichols and his wife Katy, a school secretary, have a daughter in college and a son in the Army who is currently training to be a helicopter pilot.