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Bizzari: Carefully analyze candidates for Cayuga County Surrogate Court judge

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Cayuga County Courthouse

The Cayuga County Courthouse

In the November 2021 election cycle, Cayuga County residents will cast a vote for a Surrogate Court Judge that serves a 10 year term. The election fills the current seat that will be vacated by the Hon. Mark Fandrich who retires at the end of the year. Judge Fandrich has been a fair, thoughtful, careful and reasoned jurist in Surrogate/Family Court proceedings. He’s served his community honorably and deserves a long and healthy retirement.

Surrogate and Family Court hears some of the most complicated cases that affect very real and very vulnerable humans and renders decisions that can have long-term, generational impacts on children and families. The Department of Social Services sends many petitions over and conducts much of its legal work in that court, seeking decisions and guidance on a variety of complex cases.

The Department of Social Services seeks out those decisions because Surrogate and Family Court judges have powers to remove children from abusive/neglectful parents and then must decide whether the child can return at some point or whether the parent’s rights should be terminated and the child freed for adoption and then approve that adoption. The judge decides whether a minor adjudicated juvenile delinquent/PINS can remain in the community with services or must be removed to a residential facility. The judge decides whether an adult is incapacitated in such a manner that the Department or another individual should manage their property/finances to keep them safe, housed and free from exploitation and/or manage their healthcare decisions, decide where they live as well as decisions regarding end of life care.

It’s fair to say that in the Department of Social Services, the cases that drive petitions generate strong opinions from staff, particularly in cases of vulnerable children and adults. Issues of risk vs safety are not always bright-line clear. Emotions often run hot in these cases. The judge conducts hearings to properly evaluate the evidence and merits of the petition and must manage all of the respective parties’ emotions, including their own as they are often parents themselves and without the ability to know the future, must make a decision that’s in the best interests of the person standing in front of him/her. These decisions will affect the future of a child, the future of of every member of a family or a vulnerable adult in very profound and life altering ways. These are sobering truths.

In this election cycle, there is no vote more important than this vote. We should think about the duties and responsibilities of this judge and evaluate the candidates on the qualities that make a good Surrogate Court Judge. We should look for compassion, respect, patience, kindness, a portfolio of related professional and personal experience, emotional intelligence and most important: humility as this judge’s decisions are made at a time in a person or family’s life when they are extraordinarily vulnerable.

Ignore the politics and especially ignore the political parties. Read both men’s statements and listen to their interviews. Talk to the candidates if you are able, ask them the hard questions and listen carefully to their answers. There’s a good chance you or someone you care about appears in that court one day.

Ray Bizzari is Director of Cayuga County Community Services

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