Susan L. Pollet
Chair of the Archive and Historian Committee
Q: You have been a long time member of the WWBA. Can you please tell us why you joined and detail the contributions of the WWBA in the Westchester legal community.
A: Susan, first I would like to thank you and the Westchester Women’s Bar Association for the honor of being interviewed for this month’s newsletter. The simple answer to your first question is- Karen Bell. She invited me to join the Women’s Bar. Karen was serving as law guardian (attorney for the child), for two teenage brothers on one of my Integrated Domestic Violence cases in the early 2000’s when at some point during the case she asked if I was a member of the Women’s Bar. In response to my answer she said you need to join and then extended an invitation. I made the right decision and joined. The Women’s Bar provides an invaluable network in the legal community for its members, especially for those that aspire to judicial service. The Bar expands opportunities for women and advances the status of its members in the profession. The members assist and promote each other in many ways- legal positions, referrals, awards, judicial positions or even a simple phone call to a law clerk seeking information. Judges in Westchester support the Women’s Bar. By the way, Karen’s advocacy on that case was extraordinary. I admired her as an attorney and as a person, and miss her presence at our meetings and dinners.
Q: What changes have you seen in the legal community in Westchester since you first started practicing law?
A: The legal community in Westchester is more diverse today. There are certainly more women and people of color in the practice of law in Westchester. In March 1979 when I began my service at the District Attorney’s Office in Westchester County there were less than 10 women ADA’s and just two Black Americans, one being the Hon. Joseph West. We have happily improved those statistics since then. In my early career, there was no such thing as dress down Fridays and I remember being scolded by the Administrative Judge, Hon. Joseph Gagliardi, for wearing tassel loafers. Suits and white shirts were required for the men and women were expected to wear dresses or suits, but no pants. A lot has changed since then. I enjoyed the camaraderie in the DA’s office, whether it was playing on the DA’s softball team or going to Patrick’s Pub after work. But I enjoy now having seen the legal community grow in important and positive ways since I entered the ranks.
Q: Please tell us about your legal career, how it developed over time, and what led you serve on the bench.
A: I was practicing law with my father and his partner Barry Kriesberg when afforded the opportunity to join the staff of District Attorney Carl Vergari. I was seeking courtroom experience and what better place than the DA’s office. I accepted a three year commitment and stayed six and half years. In 1984 there were two openings on the Westchester County Court and the Administrative Judge, the same sartorial AJ, summoned me to his office and encouraged me to seek the nomination for one of the County Court positions. But for his support and guidance I don’t think I would have ever had the confidence to seek a judicial position. I eventually received the nomination to run for County Judge in 1993, after nine years of perseverance. Before being elected as a Westchester County Judge I served eight years as a law clerk to the Hon. Kenneth Lange. There I learned how to be a non-advocate, in other words, learned how to be objective by giving each side an opportunity to be heard, and by observing the judge’s patience, fairness and compassion. My 20 years on the superior court started at the County bench, designated Acting Justice of the Supreme Court, and then elected to the Supreme Court in 1999 followed by appointments to the Appellate Term Ninth and Tenth Districts and the Appellate Division Second Department, sitting on over 5,000 appellate cases.
Q: Please describe a few of the most memorable cases you presided over as a Judge.
A: A decision by an appellate judge is usually the final word on a particular case and knowing that the court’s decision may have a lasting impact on the law in New York brings great satisfaction, especially when a case you’ve authored, such as People v Wyatt (89 AD3d 112 [2d Dept 2011]), is cited hundreds of times and its reasoning is accepted by the Court of Appeals. At the trial level, cases such as the Murder First Degree trial and the White Plains rapist trial were memorable for me. However, the opportunity to preside over the Integrated Domestic Violence Court in Westchester County in 2001, one of three pilot courts in New York State, was exciting and rewarding. I saw firsthand the benefits of Chief Judge Kaye’s initiative and shared the experiences with visitors to the court from across New York, as well as national and international.
Q: What were your biggest challenges on the bench?
A: For a long time, I had always thought that sentencing was the biggest challenge. Taking away someone’s liberty is a formidable responsibility. Deciding whether to impose probation instead of incarceration can at times be more difficult than imposing an 88 year state prison sentence for a rapist in White Plains. But then I was assigned an O’Connor hearing requiring me to determine whether life supports should be discontinued, thus terminating someone’s life. Now, that’s a big challenge!
Q: What are your goals for your legal career in the future?
A: My foremost legal career goal is to be the best Town Judge in Harrison I can be. I accepted an appointment to the town bench this past April- a part-time judicial position, often referred to as the “people’s court” or the “court closest to the people.” Why begin a second tour of judicial duty? Because public service in the legal community defines who I am and dates back nearly 40 years. After leaving the bench in December 2013, I’ve undertaken several responsibilities, including an appointment as jurist in residence at Pace Law School where, as an adjunct professor, I have taught constitutional law classes in Election Law, and Judicial Ethics and Decision Making. County Executive Astorino appointed me to serve as executive director of the county commission that oversees the licensing of carting and hauling companies in Westchester with the goal of suppressing the influence of organized crime in the industry. Interestingly, my first assignment in the DA’s office was to the Rackets Bureau. I have also provided consulting services and mediation for lawyers in Westchester. In the same vein, some more exciting news- Judge Dennis Lynch and I recently incorporated Westchester Mediators. We along with Mark Blanchard and Professor John Nolan from Pace Law will be offering mediation services in the near future. Judge Lynch founded the Giving to Ghana Foundation and appointed me General Counsel. In 2012 we traveled to Ghana, West Africa to instruct on mediation to local community leaders and also presented to the Ghanaian high court judges on judicial decision making. There our salutation was “My Lord.”
Q: When not on the bench, what activities do you like to engage in?
My activities outside the bench revolve around family oriented events, with a great emphasis on the family farm in upstate New York. My parents purchased the farm in 1970 and for many summer weeks and weekends the task of breeding and raising Standardbred horses has consumed much of my time. I can’t begin to describe the tranquility and relaxation I find in driving a John Deere tractor pulling a brush hog in the apple orchard- can’t get much better than that. Also, service as the president emeritus of the New York State chapter of a not-for-profit organization devoted to Prader-Willi syndrome takes up some of my free time.
Q: How have you managed to balance family and career over the years?
A: I’ve been blessed these past 36 years with an extremely supportive and loving wife and three beautiful children – the youngest of whom has an impending wedding in June 2018. My legal career has taken me out of the home many nights and weekends and caused me to miss family activities, especially when serving on the Second Department for seven years. An associate justice of the appellate court is truly a 24/7 job consuming endless hours with reading and preparation for oral argument. An understanding spouse makes that possible.
Q: What advise do you have for new lawyers entering the profession; and what advice do you have for seasoned lawyers to continue being productive and satisfied in their careers?
A: First, I would suggest that lawyers join a bar association like the WWBA. The networking can be indispensable at times and friendships will last a lifetime. I impart to my students the importance of respect, as well as, preparation, reputation and civility in the legal profession. It is my belief that lawyers can “strive mightily but eat and drink as friends,” to borrow a line from Shakespeare. And a final thought- a smile and a bit of humility can go a long way.