Retiring judge praised for ‘tough sentences’ and good heart

Photos by Tom Rivers: Orleans County Court Judge James Punch, right, was honored during a retirement party on Thursday at Tillman’s Village Inn. Here he receives gifts of appreciation from the 8th Judicial District from Eugene Pigott, a former associate judge on the Court of Appeals, and Paula L. Feroleto (center), the District Administrative Judge for the 8th Judicial District. Pigott said Punch has had "a stellar, stellar career."

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 1 August 2017 at 1:05 pm

ALBION – Judge James Punch would often set bail for hundreds of thousands of dollars for defendants with long criminal histories, and he would typically give them the maximum sentences.

“He’s a tough sentencer, we all know that,” said District Attorney Joe Cardone during a retirement party for the judge last Thursday. “It sends a message to the drug dealers from other counties not to do business in Orleans  County.”

Punch served as Orleans County Court judge for nearly 27 years until his retirement on July 29.

Cardone said Punch also was demanding of attorneys, insisting they be prepared – and on time.

Twice Punch fought cancer, and continued to carry out his duties on the bench with distinction, Cardone said.

“He came to work to maintain the integrity of our court system,” Cardone said. “We’ll be forever grateful for your hard work and decency.”

Cardone said Punch had a great “BS Barometer” in seeing through excuses and lies from some of the defendants.

District Attorney Joe Cardone was among the speakers during a retirement party for Judge James Punch last Thursday.

In addition to Criminal Court, Punch was judge for Family Court, Surrogate’s Court and State Supreme Court. He also started specialized courts – drug and domestic violence courts.

The 8th Judicial District has six judges scheduled to fill in during Punch’s absence until a new judge is elected and begins on Jan. 1.

“We have a full contingent trying to replace one person,” said Paula L. Feroleto, administrative judge for the 8th Judicial District. She is among the judges that will preside over cases in Orleans the next five months until a new judge starts.

Feroleto said Punch has shown himself to be “an honorable person,” looking for ways to serve justice and fill the needs of the judicial system in the county. That hasn’t always been punishment-focused.

“He really has a tender heart,” she told about 250 people at Punch’s retirement party. “He is a tender person.”

Before he was judge, Punch worked about five years as district attorney. He was first elected at age 29, the youngest DA in the state. A week on the job as district attorney, he had his first murder case. Punch had seven of those cases as DA, and won convictions in all them.

He thanked the law enforcement officers for their work in those cases. During the retirement party, he insisted all the sheriffs during his tenure be acknowledged for their work.

He ended his speech with a toast to two words. Those two words – “To Justice” – were the same two words he used in a toast after securing his first murder conviction as a DA.

Former Sheriff David Green said Punch proved his dedication to the community, taking on many difficult cases.

Punch, a 1973 Medina graduate, said he is grateful for a career in the community where he grew up.

“My life has been a series of fortunate events,” Punch told the group. “Luck, hard work and God have been involved.”

He recalled going before the Albion Republican Committee when he was 29 and seeking that committee’s support for DA. Punch said one of his shoes came apart, and he didn’t think it would make a good impression.

“My left shoe had fallen apart,” he said. “It had detached everywhere but the heel.”

Just before his interview with the committee, he talked Jeff Rheinwald, former head of the Albion Federal Savings & Loan, into switching shoes. Punch wonders if he would have received the endorsement without Rheinwald’s shoes.

David Schubel, president of the Orleans County Bar Association, said Punch has served with distinction for nearly 40 years, beginning as a private practice attorney in Medina. He presented Punch with a ceremonial gavel and a piece of inscribed Medina sandstone, thanking him for his service.

When Punch was a young attorney, he rehabbed an old Medina sandstone building on West Center Street for his law office. Punch was a part-time district attorney with one assistant, handling the 10 towns courts, the village courts and the county court. Cardone said it was an immense workload for a part-time elected official. Punch would prosecute seven murders and 40 felony trials in five years before becoming judge.

David Schubel, Orleans County attorney, presents gifts from the Orleans County Bar Association to James Punch during a retirement party last Thursday.

Schubel praised the judge for the “totality” of his career in very demanding positions.

“We are enormously grateful for the years you have served,” Schubel said.

Sanford Church, the county’s public defender, also spoke during the retirement gathering, saying Punch could write a book – “Punch Lines” – with his many memorable quotes during court.

Punch said he was hoping for a low-key departure from his career.

“I just wanted to leave the keys on the desk,” he told the crowd at the party.

But his staff wouldn’t have that. There were many lawyers, law enforcement officers and local elected officials at the gathering on Thursday.

“You’re not going to hear this too many places but I’m really going to miss the attorneys I worked with,” he said to laughter.

Public Defender Sandy Church said the retiring judge should write a book, Punch Lines, that includes his many memorable quotes from the bench.

The judge said the county has a strong criminal justice system, from the law enforcement officers, to probation, child protective services, mental health and many support agencies.

“You don’t now how good we have it until you’ve been in other counties,” Punch said.

He commended Church for his work as public defender and Cardone as the district attorney.

“Joe knows when to be tough and aggressive, and he also knows when to give someone a break,” Punch said about Cardone. “He’s a good and decent guy.”

The judge said retirement will allow him to spend more time with his wife Suzanne, their three grown children and three grandchildren.

He thanked the staff at the Courthouse – “my work family.”

“I love every one of you,” he said. “I’m going to miss everyone of you.”

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