By JAIME STUDD
For the Express
The Fulton County Republican Committee has endorsed Montgomery County Court Judge Felix Catena to replace retiring state Supreme Court justice Richard Aulisi in the 4th Judicial District.
Aulisi, a Fulton County resident, must vacate the seat because he will turn 70 years old before the end of the year, the state’s mandatory retirement age for sitting justices.
The move to back Catena follows the recent decision by Fulton County Family Court Judge Edward Skoda not to seek the seat.
Monday, Catena said he was honored to have been asked and is looking forward to possibly serving on the court.
“I love what I do, but this is an opportunity that I could not pass up, and when it was presented to me, I accepted it wholeheartedly,” Catena said.
Catena said he was somewhat surprised when he received the phone call from Fulton County Republican Committee Chairwoman Sue McNeil asking him to run because endorsements do not usually cross county lines.
“This is a little different than how it normally plays out,” said Catena. “Normally, at least on the Republican side, when a county’s resident justice of the supreme court retires, typically, a county resident, a lawyer or a sitting judge, will get the nod to run.”
“So, when Fulton County called me, yes, it was a little different in the sense that, obviously, I’m not a Fulton County resident.”
McNeil said several other candidates were considered, but when approached, indicated they weren’t interested in running for the seat this year.
“It was just something that it happened that way and with all the discussions that went around and it just kind of fell into place,” said McNeil. “There was a lot of discussion. When approached, he (Catena) said yes, he would do it, so that worked.”
Montgomery County Republican Committee Chairman Joe Emanuele said the Fulton County GOP’s decision to tap Catena for the position is somewhat unusual.
“It was Fulton County’s choice,” said Emanuele. “They could not field a candidate out of Fulton County at this particular time, so they turned to Felix Catena and Felix Catena decided, with enthusiasm, to take the offer.”
Emanuele said both he and fellow Montgomery County republican Supreme Court Justice Joseph Sise, who is seeking re-election to his 4th Judicial District seat, had hoped Catena might be considered when Skoda backed out of the race.
“I know that Joe Sise was very supportive, as I was, in case Fulton County could not come up with a candidate, and it did happen to be that Felix was asked and we stand very enthusiastically behind it,” said Emanuele.
Emanuele also acknowledged the rarity of a single county having two of its judges elected to the Supreme Court and said the possibility was exciting.
“We’re very proud of both Judge Catena’s record — and Judge Sise’s record, of course,” said Emanuele. “They’re very strong, fiscally conservative judges and of course we’re very, very thrilled and happy to have two judges out of Montgomery County.”
Though Catena is entering the race at a later stage of the game, Emanuele said he does not believe it will be an issue.
“I think a candidate like Felix Catena can rebound very quickly and positively and I’m sure that we’re going to have two Montgomery County Supreme Court justices,” said Emanuele. “I think he has a great reputation with his peers. He has a great reputation with his name recognition with the voters. If and when he does win this seat, we would be losing a very competent judge for our county seat.”
Though not officially a Fulton County resident, Catena said his ties to its legal community are strong.
“I’m a five-minute walk from the Fulton County line and I’ve been assigned to sit in Fulton County from time to time,” said Catena. “I’ve been a member of that bar for the last twenty years or so.”
Catena said a seat on the Supreme Court has always been a goal, but it wasn’t something he thought he’d be able to achieve any time soon, due mostly to the length of the terms.
“This is something that I had always thought I would do if the opportunity presented itself and these opportunities don’t present themselves very often. These are 14-year terms and they are few and far between,” said Catena. “Judge Sise is running for reelection this year. He’s a relatively young man and he’s just served out a 14-year term and he’s running for another term, so if this opportunity in Fulton County did not present itself, then I would not be in a position to run. So this was a great situation for me and an honor and a privilege.”
Catena, who is now in his second term as a county judge, said he believes his record as a 13-year veteran of the Montgomery County Court stands as testament to his dedication to position, citing the success of the drug court as one of his proudest achievements.
“I started the drug court program in 2001,” said Catena. “We’ve got a very active court and what I think is a very successful court and I think we do some public good there.”
“I’ve got 93 jury trials and I’ve been affirmed by the appellate division 95-percent of the time,” Catena added, further proof, he said of his qualifications.
Catena said he also has a significant amount of experience at the Supreme Court level, having served as an acting justice for the past 11 years.
In that capacity, Catena said he has presided over more than 1,000 dispositions and 60 Supreme Court trials.
The 4th Judicial District includes the counties of Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Hamilton, Montgomery, St. Lawrence, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren and Washington.
There are four seats up for election this year, three of which are the result of retirements of sitting justices.
In addition to Catena and Sise, Republican candidates for the seats include, Rotterdam attorney Thomas Buchanan, and John Ellis, of Franklin County, a family court magistrate in Saratoga Springs.
Four Democrats are also seeking election to the court: Schenectady County Family Court Judges Christine Clark and Mark Powers, Schenectady City Court Judge Mark Blanchfield and Saratoga Springs City Court Judge Jeff Wait.