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I’ll be fair: Pam Joern. Photo by: Teri Currie

Judicial Tempers
Pam Joern takes on the infamous Paul Czajka in the race for Columbia County Judge

It’s a given that there will be a lot of people who have a reason to dislike any given family-court judge. As one social worker commented to her colleagues between cases at Columbia County Judge Paul Czajka’s court on July 26, she feels that metal detectors are more important in family court than criminal court, because in criminal court a defendant usually knows what’s coming long before verdict or sentencing, whereas in family court things happen much more quickly and tend to be more explosive.

But less than a block away from the light-green, acoustic-ceilinged courtroom, an “Impeach Czajka” bumper sticker on a newspaper box is just one reminder that dissatisfaction with this particular judge has reached an unusually widespread, vocal, and consistent level.

“The name that kept coming up over and over with inequities and unfairness was this Judge Czajka,” said Joanne Michaels, who until this March hosted a cable TV show out of Ulster County on family-court issues. “There was no judge’s name that came up as often as his.”

Advocates of different stripes, clergy, and numerous lawyers from around the region echo Michaels, saying they hear constant complaints of Czajka’s unfairness, inappropriate judicial temperament, and rulings that seem inconsistent or to have little to do with the child’s interest. A petition to impeach him has gathered hundreds of signatures, and when one unhappy father put an ad in the paper seeking people who’ve had similar experiences, he got hundreds of responses from parents of both genders.

“People talk to me all the time. The fear factor is extraordinary,” said Linda Mussman, chair of the city of Hudson’s Democratic committee. “Ripping children out of homes in such haste, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

This year Czajka is nearing the end of his first 10-year term as County Court Judge, a position that involves responsibilities in criminal, family, and probate court, with a large majority of time spent on family court. A Republican, he faces a determined challenge from Democrat Pam Joern, who stepped down from her position as an administrative law judge to run. Joern has practiced as a prosecutor, defense attorney and law guardian (the attorney designated to represent a child’s interest in family court), and also adopted her daughter through the foster-care system.

Joern went to law school with a specific interest in family court, but she said it was the rulings and stories coming out of Czajka’s courtroom that strengthened her resolve to run for this position. “It’s not just a matter of angry litigants,” said Joern. “This is members of juries, witnesses, expert witnesses. There’s an outpouring of anger about the lack of respect in his courtroom.”

“He displayed the same type of [abusive] demeanor that [one of my clients] was complaining of in her marriage to her former husband, to the point that she was afraid to come back into his courtroom,” said Kevin Hall, a lawyer who practices in front of Czajka regularly.

Hall also talked about custody cases where the foster parent wasn’t called as a witness, resulting in the return of child to a birth mother who hadn’t shown up for visitation and didn’t change the child’s diapers; defendants whom the judge pressured to hire lawyer friends of his; and cases where the judge ordered stiffer sentences and/or longer orders of protection than had been either recommended by the prosecution or the Department of Social Services or agreed to in a plea bargain. “I’ve seen so many cases, you put them on a scale, they do not balance, they not make sense,” he said.

“I’m not just this guy who’s been wronged,” said one father (name withheld in interest of the children), who has been fighting in Czajka’s courtroom to regain the right to see his child. His case is complicated, but even without second- guessing an appropriate outcome, certain elements that he and others familiar with his case describe line up with numerous other complaints about Czajka. Social Services, he said, indicated they would not pursue a neglect petition against him, having found the accusations made by his ex-wife unfounded, but Czajka compelled them to pursue it anyway. And yet, he said, the judge has dismissed evidence or discussion of repeated suspicious hospitalizations of his child while he was in the care of his ex-wife, and let stand a sexual-abuse accusation that wasn’t backed up by any medical or psychological evidence. “It seems like whoever gets there first has the upper hand,” he said.

“[Defendants] are browbeaten into pleading guilty and told they’ll get a lighter sentence. . . . Then Judge Czajka says I don’t have to listen to any plea bargain, and gives them stiff sentences [anyway],” said Presbyterian minister Leif Erickson, who works with many people who’ve been through the court system.

Lawyers, even those who say they have no problem with Czajka, say not accepting pleas is highly unusual. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case where the judge has turned around and said no [to a plea deal],” said Susan Preston, an administrative law judge in Albany County.

Joern agrees. She said that other than Czajka, she’d never heard of judge not accepting plea deals unless one of the parties was involved in something like severe domestic violence and clearly not acting in his or her own best interest. Perhaps because it is so unusual, many of these sentencings have been appealed, but the appellate court has consistently found that sentencing discretion is actually within a judge’s rights.

“I’m really not sure what the controversy is about. My experience has been that he’s a very fair judge,” said Lette Manne, who said she’d been appearing before Czajka for 10 years.

Joern has made a centerpiece of her campaign recent research that finds that Columbia County has the highest rate of foster care placements in the state, and one of the highest percentages of those placements going into institutions. The rate has increased by 94 percent since 1998, she said, while for other Capital Region counties it has declined by 8 percent.

Joern said she believes these rates are “due to the fact that the current judge places children in care as the expedient solution without taking the time to look at each case individually a developing an alternative plan to foster care when possible.”

Czajka declined to speak on the record for this story, but he told the Independent on July 30, in response those high numbers, that “we don’t deal with numbers and statistics in court. We deal with children.”

“That’s something to look at, if it’s true,” said Mitchell Spinac, a family-court lawyer who practices in front of Czajka frequently, when told about the data. But, he noted, “that may not be the judge’s fault. It could be the whole system. . . . The judge gets it at the end, but how did it build up to that?”

There’s nothing unique about Columbia County that would make the cases that end up before the judge worse than cases elsewhere, responded Joern. “Many rural counties are faced with the same obstacles.”

Joern wants to place more emphasis on diversion to drug-treatment courts, which Columbia County has only recently introduced, according to the Office of Court Administration, and especially a version of a drug court that would be specific to family-court cases. She also wants to encourage wider use of mediation where appropriate.

“This is not just about being the anti-Czajka,” she said. “I’ve been able to witness programs that work. I’ve practiced in front of many judges, and I’ve taken the positives of what I saw.” Joern sees the most important of those positives to be: a willingness to listen, waiting until all evidence is in until making a judgment, willingness to learn, taking each situation individually without personal bias.

Joern is wary of anyone who puts an ideology over being willing to take each case in context. “I advocate for children,” she said firmly, and for her that means keeping families intact whenever that’s safe and possible. As long as both parents are fit and there’s not abuse, Joern said, “Unilaterally suspending someone’s contact with their child for months on end is so unfair to the child, and does not have a good outcome.”

“She made sure that everybody’s rights were given to them, she was fair to all parties, she has a deep concern for children, getting kids reunited with their family, protecting kids in the system,” said Preston, who has worked with Joern in the Albany courts.

“I think she’s got a good ability to be fair,” added Michael Flaum, another lawyer who has practiced with Joern.

Joern said the race so far has been exhilarating. “I never anticipated the daily affirmations from the general public,” she said, noting that she is receiving support from Republicans and even people she found against as an administrative law judge or people whose kids she recommended for foster care as law guardian.

Joern will face Czajka first in an Independence Party primary in September. The party has endorsed Czajka, but Joern said in gathering signatures to get on the ballot, all but one party member expressed excitement that she was running.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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