[6/2/21 Van White, Brighton High School, ’80 (left) and David Kramer, BHS ’81 in Brighton’s Meadowbrook neighborhood, Photo: Carol Kramer]
During this electoral season, I walked with Rajesh Barnabas (D, WF), Monroe County Legislature candidate (24th District), Albert Blankley (D), the other candidate for the same seat and Robin Wilt (D, WF), candidate for re-election to the Brighton Town Council as they canvassed in my Brighton neighborhood for the June 22nd primary election.I met up with Van on Clover Hills Drive in Brighton where lived from age nine to eighteen before leaving for college, attending French Road Middle School and Brighton High School. Van called this his homecoming canvassing day in a neighborhood filled with fond boyhood memories.
In 1971, Van’s family were the first African-Americans to live in the neighborhood. Ten years earlier, they had been the first African-Americans in the Clinton/Collingwood district in the city. At one point in the city, a cross was burned on their lawn as a warning to the Whites and to others who might sell to Black families. Van’s parents had concerns about what to expect in Clover Hills. Within weeks, however, the Craig family graciously invited the Whites and others to their home for a full-scale welcome. Van’s experience in Clover Hills taught him the past doesn’t necessarily dictate what the future holds — particularly when it comes to race relations.
At Van’s former home, he and the current owner had a lively discussion about the Constitution. Is the Constitution primarily about restricting or restraining bad governmental activity or does the document represent a set of American social values? For example, Van argued the right against unwarranted searches and seizures was both a restriction, but also an expression of the value of personal privacy.
The gentleman kindly invited Van inside. Except for the in ground pool installed by his parents, the house and yard is completely changed. Van did mention one trace of him still remains. If you peeled off the surface paint in his boyhood bedroom, you’d find Van’s full wall painting of the Last Supper done in his teens.Two doors down, Van’s friendly, engaging manner was on full display. He bonded with Stephanie and Dawn as they shared neighborhood stories, including about the Spinellis, well known in the local music scene, who still live across the street.
At the Craig home, of attractive mid century modernist design by a local architect, Van told the current owner the story of the welcome party fifty years earlier. The woman added her story of the graciousness of the Craigs. Once, that architect visited, sadly and unbeknownst to him, on the day Mrs. Craig died. The architect said that of all his clients, the Craigs were the only ones who never ask him to lower his rates. The interaction between Van and the woman was positive.
Below is my interview with Van, including questions on his campaign flyer that is not without controversy.
Talker: Tell us about your professional and personal lives.
Van: The first 10 years of my life my family and parents and I lived in the City of Rochester on the corner of Clinton and Collingwood. When I was about 10 years old, we moved out to the Town of Brighton. There, I attended French Road Middle School (now an elementary school) and then went up to Brighton High school.In May 1984, I graduated from the State University of New York at Albany with an undergraduate degree in teacher education. I knew all along, however, that I wanted to go to law school. In September 1984, I entered Georgetown Law School in Washington DC. As my first child was born while I was in law school, I had to provide for my family so I shifted to part time status at Georgetown, going to law school at night and working full time during the day. I worked full time at the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
After graduating from law school, I returned home to Rochester, NY. Ever since, I have held public service jobs: serving as an Assistant District Attorney and as Special Counsel to the Mayor for Crime and Violence Initiatives. Those two posts prepared me for the position of County Court Judge as I appeared in most of the town, city, and county courts as an Assistant District Attorney, handling misdemeanors to more serious felony cases. During that time, I took hundreds of cases to the grand jury and/or to jury trial.
My time as Special Counsel to the Mayor for Crime and Violence Initiatives also uniquely prepared me for this position as Monroe County Judge. As Special Counsel — I was also referred to as “the Crime Czar” — my portfolio required I create and support programs addressing the scourge of violence in a comprehensive way. Accordingly, during my tenure I worked to create and support prevention, intervention, and interdiction-based programs. Many of these programs I helped create or secured financial support from the City of Rochester began during my tenure at City Hall. Drug Court, Teen Court, and Pathways to Peace, to name a few, became best practices and are in existence today. Courts still use these types of intervention and prevention programs. I would, of course, continue to support their use as County Court Judge. In fact, my extensive service in this area makes me uniquely aware of the myriad of community resources available to persons who might come before me and in need of these kinds of support.
After leaving City Hall, I entered private law practice. As a result of my work in private practice, I am the only candidate who has served as a prosecutor, civil rights attorney, and defense attorney. When others discuss concerns they have regarding how the system can treat people unfairly, I have seen it and fought against it at every level — challenging the court system and others to treat people fairly, equally, and consistent with our Constitutional mandates.
By way of example, I successfully challenged the unfair deportation of a man to a country that he hadn’t been to since he was a child; I’ve successfully brought a motion and tried a case that brought a man home from prison who had been wrongly convicted 14 years previously. These cases — performed pro Bono — are just two of many, not only reflecting my significant experience in the criminal courts, but also revealing the fact that this is not just a job for me. Rather, it is my vocation.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention my experience on the Rochester Board of Education (BOE). As we all know, the school-to-prison-pipeline is real. Most of us know that the “pipeline” began flowing long before I got on the BOE. For example, when I began my service on the Board of Education, the four year graduation rate was an abysmal 39%. The graduation rate is now double, a twenty year high. While much work remains to be done, I am proud of the work we have accomplished — including doubling the graduation rate and reducing the out of school suspension rate by 40 %. Through these experiences, I have learned, more than most, what can and cannot be done to slow the school to prison pipeline.
Talker: How do you define/describe your approach to judging cases?
Van: Often times judicial philosophies are stated in the abstract. As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to understand and anticipate a judge’s thinking and/or to hold them accountable. However, in my case, residents of Monroe County need only remember one letter (“R”) and five words to understand my judicial philosophy. First, I will treat everyone who comes before me with RESPECT — treated equally, fairly, and most importantly with dignity. Second, given the frustrations that many have regarding the criminal justice system, I will view every controversy and every decision I make as an opportunity (guided, of course, by our laws and Constitutions) to REGAIN and REBUILD our community’s faith in the justice system. Third, whenever appropriate and possible, I will utilize RESTORATIVE justice, as a means to not only ensure accountability of the persons before me but also encourage a sense of healing among the parties and within the community. Finally, all judges should have an ongoing RELATIONSHIP with the community that they serve, even when they are not in the courthouse. Consequently, the residents of Monroe County will see me (as they have throughout my three decades of public service) in the streets, classrooms, and the community trying to connect with citizens and working with them and other community leaders to support, encourage, and develop a sense of social and economic justice for all people so they don’t find themselves in the courthouse in the first place.Talker: Which Supreme Court justices are exemplary models?
Van: The most obvious role models for me are Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
All three clearly understood that the role of the court is to hold up and enforce the rights and democratic values embedded within our Constitution.
Talker: As seen in “Crimes committed in schools will be pursued as crimes committed elsewhere”: An Open Letter to RCSD teachers from Brandon White. And restorative justice , during your tenure as Rochester School Board President, the district placed an increased emphasis on restorative justice to address school disciplinary issues. In what ways do principles of restorative apply to the broader legal system? What are some limitations of restorative justice?
Van: As said previously, I will utilize RESTORATIVE justice, as a means to not only ensure accountability of the persons before me but also encourage a sense of healing among the parties and within the community.
In most instances (except in the most violent and heinous crimes), I would consider a restorative approach — particularly where the victim was open to trying it. In a very few situations I would not consider a restorative approach. Of course, in the case of our most serious felonies (e.g. murder), there must be accountability, including serious prison time where there is a conviction. However, even in the wake of our most serious offenses, leaders (including judges) must understand that a whole lot of hurt is left for our community to bear. And in these instances (even when the offender is put away), healing must take place. I believe that, even in these instances, it is incumbent upon judges and other community leaders to address this hurt through restorative programming and community supports.
in most instances (except in the most violent and heinous crimes) I would consider a restorative approach – particularly where the victim was open to trying it.
Talker: In What Maritza Buitrago can and cannot say on the electoral road., Maritza Buitrago discussed the rules governing judicial election campaigns.¹ Here is an excerpt based on a previous conversation with now-Judge Melissa Barrett (Rochester City Court, 7th Judicial District):
Pointing me to the 72 page Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook, Melissa Barrett [see On the electoral road with Melissa Barrett] explained that so-called “announce rules” require that no judicial candidate announce his or her views on disputed legal or political issues. The restrictions range from commonsensical prohibitions against stating how one would rule on a pending case to knottier issues. For example, a candidate should not express any opinion on the judicial system itself.
With these guidelines in mind, as seen in your campaign flyer, critics might say you make statements expressing views on disputed legal or political issues or on the judicial system itself.
Critics might point to some of the phrasing — fighting ICE’s unjust deportations, diversifying juries, convincing judges and juries that Black Lives Matter, police brutality, leading the way on criminal justice reform — as indicating or signaling you have policy preferences you might want to advance as a judge.
Specifically, you point to a “noticeable absence of people of color on local juries,” a disparity you worked to remedy by producing a P.S.A. encouraging jury service as well as signing people up for jury during your lunch hour, past activities worth inclusion in the flyer.
At the same time, judges have the power to excuse potential jurors. Again, critics might say your desire for more people of color on local juries could influence your decisions as to which jurors to excuse or retain.
Van: I am not sure who these “critics” might be, but there are no disputed legal or political issues or opinions expressed in that flyer. If you examine it, the flyer only discusses cases I have been involved in. Moreover, the flyer does not speculate on hypothetical scenarios which might come before me as a judge. Instead, this flyer represents/highlights my actual work in the courtroom and community. There is no ethical prohibition against sharing these facts. In fact, I imagine everyone would embrace this kind of work — protecting the rights of the wrongly accused and those who seek justice, fairness, and dignity — for a person aspiring to be a judge.
With respect to the ethical guidelines, I have and will continue to abide by them for a number of reasons. First, I am fully aware of what they entail. In fact, every two years, lawyers are required to enroll in Continuing Legal Education courses, including mandated classroom instructional hours relating to legal ethics. Second, any lawyer who intends on running for judge (including sitting judges) is required to take a course in judicial campaign ethics. I have taken that course, understand and agreed with those ethical rules and guidelines.
However, those guidelines are not a curtain or shield for candidates to hind behind. People/voters need to know who they are voting for. After all successful judicial candidates will hold their judicial seat for 10 years. Consequently, it’s important that voters know what these candidates stood for and believed 10 years before they aspired to become a judge.
Accordingly, the flyer shares with the people of this community my belief that it is important that our jury pools be diverse and representative of the community from which they are drawn. This is an inclusionary not exclusionary value. In other words, like the Monroe County Commissioner of Jurors and Chief Administrative Judge Craig Doran, I support efforts to diversify our juries.
But I would NEVER support excluding someone based on race (whether they were black or white), gender, etc. Moreover, if an allegation was made that anyone (prosecutor or a defense attorney) was doing such a thing, I would immediately make an appropriate inquiry and then make the appropriate constitutional decision – see Batson v. Kentucky.
Additionally, the flyer shares my belief that often times when people are mistreated and abused it is sometimes reflective of a personal belief system that concludes that black lives don’t matter. So when the officer callously kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck the officer was communicating to Mr. Floyd and his family that his life did not matter.
Similarly, when officials smothered my client [pictured with the police on his back and my client and his stomach] they were saying to Mr. Rogers and his family that his life did not matter.
When these types of in custody deaths and abuses happen consistently to black men, rational people of good will are compelled to remind people that Black Lives Matter. Does that mean white lives don’t matter or that police lives don’t matter. Of course not … to me all human life is precious and matters. But sadly, research — as well as the headlines — tell us that, for some, not all lives are equally valued.
And so when confronted with those situations, I have chosen to a challenge the conduct of those who choose to devalue someone simply because they are black, a female, a member of the LGBTQIA+ Community, etc.
This is not just who I am as a lawyer, it’s who I am as a person. In the end, I hope that voters want judicial candidates who will share who they are not just what they aspire to be.
¹ In October 2016, I wrote:
After reading the 72 page Judicial Campaign Ethics Handbook, I saw some meritorious rules and others problematic. I like the careful monitoring of fundraising activities. But, as the handbook says itself, given that partisan political parties nominate candidates, keeping judicial elections relatively non-partisan rests on a shaky foundation. Strong cases are made that judicial candidates should follow the same rules — and have the same freedom of expression — as other candidates. For example, the women found what party nominated Maritza to be useful information. Yet, Maritza probably could not discuss in much depth why she is a registered Democrat. [While canvassing, Buitrago did not mentioned her political party/affiliation unless asked.]As a citizen journalist, I understand some of the ethical guidelines. A judge’s duties are different from a legislator. But I also worry that the prohibitions make the public rely too heavily on bar association and judicial qualifications commissions rating systems.In the end, I want to know as much as I can about a judge’s legal reasoning and decision making process. Is he or she a pragmatist, an originalist, tending toward judicial constraint or judicial activism? We ask these questions of Supreme Court nominees, why not all judges? [from What Maritza Buitrago can and cannot say on the electoral road. ]
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