She has seen it all in her courtroom, from extremely serious to "seriously, folks?"
Hailed by those who've worked with her for her common-sense compassion, no-nonsense speaking style and ability to judge a diverse constituency fairly, Judith Rossiter '86 stepped down this June after serving for more than two decades as Ithaca City Court judge and for the past four years as acting Tompkins County Court judge.
Here's a sampling of her cases:
- a trespass charge against a Cornell student who refused to climb down from her aerie in a tree while protesting the university's plans to turn a woodland area into a parking lot (more on that later)
- traffic violations charges against a funeral director who argued he was inadvertently speeding uphill to compensate for the heavy weight of the cadaver in his vehicle
- a woman charged with stealing a statue of the Virgin Mary from a church (Give her twenty Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys," an attorney called out in court)
- multiple cases involving the use of alcohol and its aftermath, including one in which pledges at a fraternity were charged following a member's death
City courts like Ithaca's typically handle charges that cross the town-gown divide, says Rossiter, and can include everything from parking and traffic violations and appeals to landlord-tenant disputes and evictions to trespass, disorderly conduct, petit larceny, obstruction of justice, and civil suits in small claims court.
Occasionally a case will give her a chance to help change someone's life for the better. "When you're in a city court you start dealing with kids from the age of sixteen on," Rossiter explained in an interview in the Ithaca Journal on June 7. "One of my first questions [to them] is: 'Are you in school?'" If they aren't, Rossiter asks: "'What are we going to do about getting you back…or into a GED program?'"
"In little ways that don't interfere with the case, you start inserting yourself into a kid's life, suggesting to them that there are better things to do," she says. "I'm not looking for repeat business," she tells them.
Professor Steve Shiffrin, who has sat in on many of Rossiter's recent court cases and her pretrial work, calls her "just a magnificent judge. She really wants to get people on the right path."
“She is held in high esteem,” Ithaca attorney James Kerrigan was quoted as saying in an Ithaca Times article posted April 15 about a proposal to rename the Ithaca City Courthouse in Rossiter’s honor. “It is rare for disparate communities within our city to agree and to celebrate her accomplishments,” continued Kerrigan, reading from a written statement. “It is rarer still that both the police and defendants celebrate her fairness, her commitment to justice, the manner and efficiency with which she holds court, the respect she accords police, defendants, witnesses, the public.”
“She’s a great jurist, tough but fair and reasonable,” says Tompkins County clerk Aurora Valenti, a former law firm colleague and longtime friend.
“City court is called the people’s court for a reason,” Rossiter said in the Ithaca Journal interview. Her work on Ithaca’s drug court, which is linked with city court, gave her the chance to help defendants face their problems and find solutions, such as getting an admitted addict into a rehab program or a teen mom get affordable housing. “Opportunities like that don’t come up in appellate court,” she says.
“But making the right judgments can be a lonely business, especially when there are strong views within the community about what a case’s outcome should be. “You’ve got to park the ego at the door, keep your head down, and be diligent about doing the work and making sure you are on firm legal footing,” says Rossiter.
“It’s essential that what you do is based on the actual facts, knowing what the law is and applying it as it has been applied in the past,” she says. “That’s what I tried to do. If you let yourself be affected by what people are saying about you, there’s a high likelihood of making the wrong decision.”
It was far from a straight shot to law school or the bench for Rossiter, she says. Wildlife biology was her chief interest when she was growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, and spending summers at nearby Rehoboth Beach, and that subject became an undergraduate major.
Law didn’t enter the picture until 1977, when she enrolled in a master’s degree program in zoology at the University of North Dakota (where her then husband, Steve Ceci, had a faculty appointment).
There, Rossiter began working on a project to create new habitat for wildlife displaced by human development. “I was getting into the legality of it all, and I thought, gee, it might be good to take a class in environmental law,” she recalls.
She was initially turned down by the professor who taught that class, but everything changed after she spotted a reproduction on his office wall of Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth’s compelling image of a woman in dry grass on rural farmland. “‘I grew up within a stone’s throw of there,’ I told him.”
It turned out he had too and had even attended the boys’ school parallel to the all-girls parochial school she’d gone to in Wilmington.
With his support she ended up taking so many law courses for credit that she became the first person to graduate UND with a master’s degree in wildlife biology and an academic minor in law. “That was my transition point,” Rossiter says.
After she and Ceci moved to Ithaca in 1980 so that he could take a faculty position at the College of Human Ecology, she was told by one job interviewer that “‘faculty spouses with master’s degrees are a dime a dozen in this town,’” she remembers.
Defying dire employment prospects, she became an editor of several journals at the Ecological Society of America, which has offices on Cornell’s campus.
She also was accepted at Cornell Law School, entering in fall 1983. “We had bills to pay, so I kept working fulltime while I was going for my J.D. and fixing up an old house we’d bought downtown,” she says. It was a more than full plate, but “law school is the place I learned that if you tackle things calmly, you will get through them.”
“Judy and I became fast friends our first year of law school, and we’re still friends,” says Greg Cioffi ’86, now a partner at Seward and Kissell LLP in New York City. “She had a gift for juggling the many demands on her with humor and a sense of calm, and her house became a sanctuary for me from the stresses of law school—not to mention a frequent meal hall.”
Associate dean and dean of students Anne Lukingbeal, who was dean of admissions when Rossiter applied, recalls interviewing her. “She had a unique combination of energy, motivation, and common sense as well as a good sense of humor — not easy to display in an admissions interview. I was pleased to learn later on that she found a career where all those qualities played a role in her success.”
Rossiter was visibly pregnant during the fall semester of her third year and gave birth to her daughter, Nicole, on the last day of class. She lugged her law books to the hospital so that she could study for her final exams.
Two weeks later, unable to find a sitter, she brought her new baby with her to one of those exams. Mother and daughter were put in a separate room so that other students wouldn’t be disturbed if the baby cried.
“It was probably the first time in the history of the Law School where somebody took a breastfeeding break in the middle of a final,” Rossiter quips.
As graduation approached in 1986, Rossiter worried she wouldn’t find appropriate work. But when Judge D. Bruce Crew of Elmira interviewed her for a clerk position, the two hit it off and he hired her.
Crew sat on New York State’s Supreme Court and was administrative judge for the state’s sixth judicial district— a ten-county area. “I really had a great opportunity to work on all kinds of cases with him and also watch him deal with administrative issues,” says Rossiter.
That experience and her later work with Ithaca law firms led to her appointment as interim Ithaca City Court judge in January 1994 by then mayor Ben Nichols. Later that year, she was elected to the part-time position.
She soon found out that part time meant no clerk or staff, and found herself working more than sixty hours a week “writing, researching, and checking my own positions. It was insane,” she recalls.
But in the middle of her first term, New York State passed a law making all judgeships in Ithaca and other small cities full time. “I got to hire a halftime law clerk and secretary, so life was good,” Rossiter says.
With full-time status came a ten-year term, to which she was elected in 2000, and again in 2010.
During that time, Rossiter’s first marriage ended, she remarried, in 1996, to Bill Kaupe, and her daughter, Nicole, grew up and became an engineer who designs energy-efficient buildings.
Among the many cases Rossiter handled over her twenty years as city court judge were the Redbud Woods demonstrations, a group of cases in 2004–2005 involving Cornell students protesting the university’s plans to reclaim an area of land on west campus dubbed Redbud Woods and turn it into a parking lot (the university eventually won the right to do so in court).
The issue for Rossiter was: “There were some protestors who were being charged differently than others, even though their behavior wasn’t very different. I ended up ruling—much to the consternation of [then district attorney George] Dentes—that I really was at a loss to come up with any rational basis for going after one person for a trespass violation, which is a noncriminal offense, and another person for a misdemeanor, which is a criminal offense, even though what they were doing was similar. It was certainly not fair, just, or constitutional.”
First Amendment rights figured in a related case on which she ruled, People v. Millhollen, in which a student sitting in a tree to protest Cornell’s development plans for Redbud Woods was charged with trespass and disorderly conduct. In a nonjury trial, Rossiter found the defendant not guilty after researching prior relevant cases, including one involving a woman named Julia “Butterfly” Hill who’d sat in an old-growth tree in Oregon for two years to protect it from logging. In that ruling, the courts had upheld the sitter’s First Amendment right to do so.
In the People v. Millhollen case, “Essentially I wrote that if this gal wanted to spend four years sitting in a tree rather than going to class she could do it, as long as she paid tuition and didn’t flunk out,” Rossiter says. “The amount of time [in the tree] was not a factor.”
“Judge Rossiter made a wonderfully crafted argument,” says Shiffrin, a First Amendment scholar.
Those who know her well, say Rossiter went above and beyond to assist people with mental health and substance abuse issues in her court, and she often got hugs from those she helped.
In one instance she rescued an offender’s half-wet laundry from a local Laundromat just before the place closed for the night, took it home, and dried it. (This was soon after she’d arraigned the woman for stealing a car left with keys in the ignition to transport her laundry to the Laundromat).
“I knew that if I didn’t help, her clothes would be gone by morning, so I commandeered one of the big, rolling laundry hampers, loaded it up, and rolled it home,” says Rossiter.
The following day she asked her husband Bill to wheel to the courthouse the hamper with the now dry and folded laundry. On the way he ran into a local attorney and said: “You’re not going to believe what I’m doing.”
When Rossiter entered the courtroom, the attorney rose to address her. “Your honor,” he said. “I have one request before we start the case. Will you do my laundry?”
That joke, which she is still laughing about, and others during her years as city court judge are among the things she’ll miss most about her former job, she says.
Returning to her roots at Rehoboth Beach in retirement, she plans to continue to offer online law courses for Tompkins Cortland Community College.
Rossiter’s advice to aspiring litigation attorneys and judges? “Get some theater experience. There’s nothing worse than an attorney who appears in court who’s got stage fright.”
It’s advice she has taken herself. She started performing in theater and dance productions in high school and remains an accomplished tap dancer, heralded for her snappy routines at past Ithaca Festivals.
“Judy put as much entertainment, love, and joy into those performances as she has done with everything in her life,” says Valenti. “She’s a wonderful role model.”
~LINDA BRANDY MYERS