This is the fourth in a four-part series about Family Court Judge Judith Claire, who is running for a second 10-year term, and her opponent, Phil Cala. In the fourth part, both candidates answer the question, ''From your experience working on the Law Guardian Panel, describe the benefits that the law guardians bring to the court process.''
Chautauqua County Judge Judith Claire is critical of her opponent's absence from the Law Guardian program, which provides legal assistance to children involved with Family Court cases.
Judge Claire, who is running for a second 10-year term on the Democratic, Working Families, Conservative and Independence lines, believes experience with the program is essential for someone running for Family Court judge.
''Serving as a law guardian is the single most basic indication of an interest in family law. I served on the law guardian panel every year that I was in private practice,'' Judge Claire said. ''My understanding is my opponent has not ever served on the panel.''
According to Cala, who is running on the Republican line, that is not entirely accurate. He said he served on the Law Guardian Panel between 1979 and 1981 and from 1983 to 1989, when he was not working for the Chautauqua County Public Defender's Office.
Cala also said his work with the public defender's office prohibits him from being involved with the Law Guardian Panel, which is why he has not participated in the program since 1989, the year he rejoined the public defender's office.
''Keep in mind, I haven't been on the Law Guardian Panel for the 19 years that I've been with the public defender's office because I'm prohibited from doing that work,'' Cala said. ''That's considered double dipping. So public defender staff is not permitted to serve as law guardians.''
According to attorneys familiar with the Law Guardian Panel, that also is not entirely correct.
Working in both areas of the law can create a conflict of interest in many cases, which is why some do not encourage the practice. But lawyers working with the public defender's office are not barred from volunteering with the Law Guardian Panel; in fact, one of the panel's most active participants is an assistant public defender.
Later, Cala said he has always just operated under the assumption that he would not be able to rejoin the Law Guardian Panel. When he was just getting started with his law practice in the 1980s and was a member, though, he said he was an active participant.
''I took everything they'd give me,'' Cala said. ''At that point in my career, that was a little bit of extra income.''
According to Judge Claire, the Law Guardian Panel is comprised of attorneys who donate their time at significantly reduced rates to protect the interests of children involved with Family Court cases. Law guardians make regular visits to the child's home and school, as well as to neighbors and family members, to better understand the situation. Law guardians also represent the child before the court.
''I believe that my own experience as a law guardian was an invaluable opportunity in educating me in the issues that the Family Court must deal with,'' Judge Claire said.
It's also essential since, without law guardians, the children would not have advocates working on their behalf, according to Judge Claire.
''The Family Court could not operate without law guardians,'' she said.
That's one thing about which the two candidates are in agreement.
''The law guardians are indispensable,'' Cala said. ''They represent the constitutional mandate that every attorney understands and takes to heart, which is right to counsel. And these kids who come in there ... they don't have anybody to speak for them. They dont have anybody to help them except for their law guardian in many cases. A lot of times, they're at odds with their own parents.''
Law guardians, says Cala, serve as mentors, advocates, advisers and sometimes friends to the children involved, and he called his earlier experience with the Law Guardian Panel ''extremely gratifying.''
''It was an eye-opener for me even though I came from a pretty plebeian background ... I was seeing some things in some cases that were just absolutely appalling in terms of the way the kids were treated,'' Cala said.