Editor's note: This is the first in a series of three stories focusing on a debate held between Judge John T. Ward and Legislator William F. Coughlin for the upcoming election for county judge.
MAYVILLE - Judge John T. Ward and County Legislator William F. Coughlin have spent most of their lives in the judicial system.
Both men have served, in one capacity or another, in the county district attorney's office. Both men have pledged time to educate the public regarding the complex courts system.
And both are seeking the Conservative and Independence party nominations for Chautauqua County Judge.
On Thursday, Sept. 13, voters in the county will decide party nominations for November's general election. Ward, the incumbent judge and Republican, and Coughlin, a Democrat county legislator representing Fredonia, are seeking additional party lines.
The candidates were asked how their background, experience and credentials make them a better fit for the job.
"What I think I bring to the table, unlike others that may be after this job, is I have 10 years experience as a district attorney and 11 years experience as defense counsel," Coughlin said during a debate at The Post-Journal.
"It gives me a broader knowledge of what goes on in the lawyer's minds. I think I am able because of that being on both sides for an extended time I am able to understand what it is like for a person to prosecute a case and to defend a case."
Ward, now seeking his third 10-year term as county judge, said his time as a prosecutor has helped him become a better advocate for justice. He added that having served in the post for 20 years gives him an edge in experience.
"Making the transition from prosecutor to judge for me wasn't difficult at all," Ward said. "The job of a prosecutor is obviously to seek justice. Certainly when you're in court you're an advocate. You have to make decisions as a prosecutor based upon what you think is fair."
He continued: "What I hope is that during the nearly 20 years that I've been on the bench I have not only treated the litigants fairly, done my best to make the decisions that I think are based on the law and the facts, but I have I think I have conducted myself, both in and out of court, in an ethical manner."
Coughlin is a lifelong resident in Chautauqua County, with brief stints in Olean, Rochester and Buffalo. He graduated from the University at Buffalo with a law degree in 1986, and five years later was admitted to the New York State Bar Association.
After working in the Erie County District Attorney's Office, Coughlin, the oldest of seven children, was offered a job as first assistant district attorney in Chautauqua County.
In 2002, Coughlin became county public defender, a position he held unit 2011. He now works as managing attorney at Buffalo Legal Aid.
Ward, meanwhile, considers himself a native of Chautauqua County, although he was born in a different state. He began his career as an assistant district attorney in the county - handling both felony and misdemeanor cases.
He eventually became district attorney at the age of 29, a post he served for 15 years. He then ran and successfully became county judge in 1992.
As a prosecutor and defender, Coughlin said he understands how the judicial process works on "both sides of the aisle." That knowledge, he noted, would suit well for a judge.
"I really believe it's up to the judge to understand what pressures these attorneys are under," he said. "And try and fashion a way that this can come out as fair for both sides."
He added: "One of my strengths is case analysis. And I think if you understand before you go in to a trial, into a hearing or any type of litigation, your ability to know the pertinent facts, the law, what potential arguments are going to be and prepare yourself in that way gives you a one-up."
The incumbent judge, like Coughlin, said being prepared for a case is as important as the case itself.
"Throughout my career I have tried to conduct myself with integrity and with judicial temperament," Ward said. "I do want to stress that trial experience is very important for a judge."
Coughlin, who hasn't tried a felony case in "at least five years" said having experience as prosecutor and defender makes him a better candidate for county judge.
"I don't get to pick and choose these cases," he said of his felony case history. "... We don't control who goes to trial. That's completely up to the district attorney.
"In presiding, I think I have the ability from my experience on both sides of the aisle."
Ward responded, "That's what I've been doing for the last 20 years, presiding."