Ridgeway’s new judge reflects on old career while embracing new one
By Howard Balaban, Correspondent
MEDINA – After serving in local law enforcement for almost 27 years, newly appointed Ridgeway Town Justice Joe Kujawa is seeing things from a different perspective.
“I knew I wouldn’t be a police officer forever,” Kujawa said.
A few years ago, when his shift at the Medina Police Department changed to days, he started having much more interaction with the local courts in Ridgeway and Shelby.
“I got to know Larry (Sanderson) and Dawn (Keppler), and I got interested in the other side of the law,” he said. With the police department, he said it was difficult to see a case through to the end unless it went to trial. (Sanderson was the judge in Ridgeway and Keppler serves as Shelby’s judge.)
“It’s nice to make that step to the other side and see cases get completed,” Kujawa noted.
Kujawa’s first day behind the bench was Jan. 5 with a docket of about 20 cases. He was accompanied by Keppler. She was there as a mentor in some cases, and she took the lead in a few, Kujawa said, “because they were cases she wanted to finish.”
The new cases were handled by the new judge, who thanked his new colleague.
“Dawn’s been great throughout this whole process,” he said. “She’s been a great mentor, and she’s a real good person.”
Much of the month leading up to Kujawa’s first day behind the bench was hectic, as his retirement from the Medina Police Department took effect and he spent a week in Albany training for his new post. And, like most people starting something new, Kujawa said there were some nerves to battle the night of Jan. 4.
“I still got butterflies,” he chuckled. “I made sure to get there early on Monday, and looked over the docket. When all eyes are on the new judge, you want to make a good first impression.”
This past Monday’s docket featured penal law cases like disorderly conduct, trespassing, and other similar types of offenses. There were no felonies over which to preside. As Kujawa explained, “All cases start in local court, and the only time a town judge would have jurisdiction over a felony is at the initial arraignment.” The felonies then move up to Orleans County Court before Judge James Punch.
The arraignments can happen at any time, and both Kujawa and Keppler, along with Yates Town Justice Don Grabowski, all are perennially “on call” for such things and serve as back-ups to each other.
Kujawa was appointed by the Ridgeway Town Board after receiving the endorsement of the Republican Committee. His name was chosen from a group of three candidates. While he said pursuing a judgeship was something he had discussed with Sanderson, the latter’s declining health led to the process happening sooner than expected. Sanderson resigned as a local judge in November after 22 years. (Sanderson died on Monday at age 73. Click here to see his obituary.)
Leaving the police force behind meant leaving behind brothers in blue, which is something Kujawa said he will miss about his long-time job.
“They’re a good bunch of individuals who love their work,” he said. “I’ll also miss the daily interactions with the people I saw, the merchants I visited. Everybody likes to see police officers on the streets, and I’d stop by businesses to talk.”
After wearing a uniform for so long, putting on a black robe “felt different” but training in Albany helped Kujawa put the new garb in perspective.
“They said, ‘Town justices are the gatekeepers of the judicial system,'” he recalled. “You’ve got to respect the power of the position, and others should, too.”
The change in Kujawa’s role in the community, and when it occurred, created a bit of a whirlwind for his family during the holidays, but the adjustment has not been too difficult.
As the saying goes, behind every good man is a great woman, and Kujawa’s wife Barb has been supportive of his new post. She did note, however, that when he first mentioned his desire to serve on the bench, it came as a shock.
“I was used to him being a cop,” she said. Becoming a judge “happened sooner than we expected, but I’m glad he’s happy. I’m happy, too.”
Barb added that her job in town – she is manager of the gift shop side of Rosenkranz Pharmacy in downtown Medina – has allowed a number of people to stop by and extend their congratulations.
She also said that the couple’s three children are proud of their dad.
“They saw that he wanted something, he pursued it, and he took the proper steps to achieve it,” she said.
Kujawa had noted how Barb was “still adjusting to me not having a set schedule every day.” However, his wife gently disagreed.
“Joe’s not a ‘sitter,'” she said. “I know that he won’t be staying home; he’ll always be out doing something.”
Barb said the most telling difference with her husband’s new job was a newfound sense of security, for even though Medina is not necessarily a hotbed for violent crime, one never knows.
“The biggest difference to me is watching the sirens go by, and not having to worry about him being in the car, or where he’s going,” she said.
She recalled how she used to stay up at night listening to the police scanner and worrying about her husband’s well-being. “Finally I told myself I had to stop,” she said.
However, in other parts of the country there are spouses of officers who do continue to worry, as they live in places where police officers’ actions have come under increased national scrutiny thanks to the advent of instant communication and social media, Kujawa was asked his opinion about such things as anti-police protests in New York City and Ferguson, Mo. He said seeing the news left him feeling both anger and sympathy.
“If they’re so angry with the police and don’t trust the police, who will they call if they need help?” he said. “It’s culture shock for me to see those kinds of things, because Medina isn’t like that.
“Still, the police are necessary,” he continued. “Everybody wants the law enforced…and people need to remember that those on the job are trained to make split-second decisions.”
He explained that in today’s world many split-second decisions are dissected for months after the fact.
“We should present someone a scenario and ask them what they’d do,” Kujawa suggested, before snapping his fingers. “Time’s up. What’d you decide? That’s how much time a police officer may have to make a decision.”
He further stated, “I feel for the guys on the other side of the tape in those areas. I can’t imagine the intense focus on them, and the fear they must have of making a mistake.”
Yet with the news focusing on the proverbial worst, Kujawa said he is looking forward to possibly seeing people at their best. After all, as a judge he now has the authority to officiate wedding ceremonies.
“That’ll be different,” he smiled.
Kujawa said moving forward in his judgeship would not have been possible without the support of his entire family, from his wife, to the couple’s children, and their grandchildren. The two oldest are in kindergarten and decided to help him out this past Christmas.
“They got me a box of candy canes for Christmas,” he said. “They told me they were for me to eat in case I got hungry on the bench.”