A local attorney has filed a complaint against Ted Wilson, the family court clerk who is running for Warren County Family Court judge.
But some of those who have investigated it, including Administrative Judge Vincent Caruso, are questioning the timing, since Election Day is less than two weeks away.
“That’s one of the things that concerns me. Is it a campaign thing or a real thing?” Caruso said.
He noted that attorney Melody Mackenzie did not first file her complaint with him, as one normally would in a case of improper court behavior. The week of the incident, she went first to the Independent Judicial Election Qualifications Commission, which rates judge candidates. A poor rating doesn’t stop a candidate from running for office, but the rating system is used by some voters in deciding who to choose. The commission rated Wilson as “highly qualified.”
The commission looked into her complaint, and decided to reaffirm on Oct. 12 that Wilson was “highly qualified.”
While Mackenzie waited for the commission to make a decision, she also filed a complaint with Caruso on Sept. 16, two weeks after the incident. When that did not lead to penalties for Wilson, she went public in mid-October.
Mackenzie is frank about the goal of her complaint. She wants to make sure Wilson isn’t elected judge, saying his behavior one morning in a divorce settlement conference was so shocking that he is unfit to be a judge.
On Aug. 29, Wilson was overseeing a divorce settlement conference involving Mackenzie’s client.
But he lost his temper, shouted, threatened a client that she would lose her children if she didn’t agree to a divorce settlement without even reading it, and insulted Mackenzie, she and other witnesses said.
“He got very angry. Red-faced,” Mackenzie said. He said “You’re a terrible attorney. Everybody hates you.”
Wilson denied doing any such things.
“It’s not true,” he said Tuesday. “None of it happened.”
In a follow-up interview Friday, he acknowledged criticizing her at one point. He said he tried to read to her a list of demands from her client’s husband. She kept interrupting him, to the point where he said, “Mel, I really have no idea how you settle cases,” he said. When she directed her assistant to write down that comment, he said he told her she was being “paranoid.”
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s what happened.”
He added that he believed it was a political attack linked to his opponent, Rob Smith, a Democrat. Mackenzie is also a Democrat.
But Smith said he has never met or communicated with the individuals involved in the incident.
Mackenzie and a lawyer who works with her and their client all described the events to The Post-Star.
The day it happened, they also described it in open court, on the record, to Washington County Family Court Judge Stan Pritzker.
Wilson is Pritzker’s clerk. In court, Pritzker defended Wilson but removed him from the case.
The case has now been moved to a new judge in Warren County.
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According to Mackenzie, her assistant attorney and her client, the Aug. 29 settlement conference went wrong from the start. It was a deeply contested divorce case that had been pending for 33 months, with both sides unable to agree on custody, visitation and property distribution. Finally, Pritzker ordered both sides to spend the day at the courthouse, trying to negotiate a settlement, with trial set for the next day if they failed to come to an agreement.
That morning, Wilson spoke with the husband’s side and got a new settlement offer, including proposals never offered before. But instead of showing it to the wife’s side, he waved the settlement in the air and read pieces of it to them, while telling them they had to take it, Mackenzie said.
Mackenzie asked a question regarding which side would pay for a consultant. Wilson got angry, shouting at them to “get out” and saying that Mackenzie was the worst attorney he’d seen in 20 years, she said. He told client Jennifer Small that he didn’t know why anyone would hire Mackenzie, among other “very unprofessional” insults, Small said.
Small said she tried to calm him down, but he told her if she didn’t accept a settlement offer, she would “lose everything” at trial.
“I was thinking about my kids,” she said, tearing up as she described the events two months later.
Mackenzie’s assistant attorney offered a similar account.
“She couldn’t say anything without him getting annoyed,” said attorney Abigail Sardino.
But Small begged for calm.
“When he first started to lose his temper, I said, ‘Can we all take a minute? Can we all calm down?’,” she said. “We sat back down. All of a sudden, it went completely out of control.”
Mackenzie said she wanted to talk to the judge to propose an attorneys-only meeting. But when she stood up, they said, Wilson ran to the door to stop her from leaving.
“He just came at me. ‘Don’t touch the door! Get your hands off my door!’,” Mackenzie said.
Sardino said his reaction scared them all.
“It was more than just getting annoyed. It was someone with a scary temper,” she said. “His face was bright red and he’s screaming.”
In court a short time later, all three described the events to Pritzker.
He said he would talk to Wilson and removed him from the case. But he also defended him.
“He’s been in thousands of negotiations and I’ve never heard anything remotely like this. Nothing ever,” he said. “What’s been described here is incredibly out of character.”
Caruso had the same reaction when he looked into the complaint. While he noted that a lawyer could face serious consequences from the New York State Bar Association for making up a story in court, he also said it was hard to believe.
“I know he has an unblemished reputation. We’ve never, ever heard anything like this,” he said.
But if it were true, he added that it would not disqualify Wilson for a judgeship, in his opinion.
“We all have had a temper tantrum throughout our lives,” he said, adding that one tantrum shouldn’t “define the rest of our lives.”