When Montgomery County Family Court Judge Philip V. Cortese takes his seat on the bench, there is a plaque he can read in front of him that says "Stay above the fray."
Cortese said that bit of wisdom, given to him by former and longtime Montgomery County Family Court Judge Gene Catena, has been great advice.
"There's a lot of emotion in Family Court," Cortese said.
Montgomery?County Family?Court Judge Philip V.?Cortese works in his office at the Montgomery?County?Courthouse in Fonda on Wednesday.
The Leader-Herald/Rodney Minor
The advice seems to have helped, judging by a recent award given to Cortese by his peers.
Cortese was named Family Court Judge of the Year for 2010 by the New York State Family Court Judges Association.
"Judge Cortese not only betters the lives of families in Montgomery County, he also unselfishly assists his fellow Family Court Judges in their delivery of services through his training courses, his writings and his willingness to share his learning and experience," Margaret Szczur, president of the New York State Family Court Judges Association, said in a news release.
Cortese said he has given several presentations at the New York State Judicial Institute to newly elected and appointed Family Court judges. He also is the co-author of the Bench Book for Family Court. The book, Cortese said, essentially breaks down statutes and case law in New York for Family Court judges so they have a clear understanding of what they are required to do in certain legal situations.
Still, he said, receiving the award was a surprise.
"It's a wonderful affirmation by fellow judges who know exactly what is involved in being a Family Court judge," Cortese said.
According to the state Unified Court System website - www.nycourtsystem.com - family courts, located in every county of the state, hear matters involving children and families, including adoption, guardianship, foster care approval and review, juvenile delinquency, family violence, child abuse and neglect, and child support, custody and visitation.
Cortese said his advice to any new Family Court judge would be to stay patient, give people an opportunity to be heard, and have some compassion for the situation the parties in the case find themselves in.
"I can go to the bench 25 times a day," he said, "but I recognize that for the people coming before me, this can be a life-altering experience."
Cortese's interest in the law, and subsequent career in it, can be traced to his own life-altering experience.
On Dec. 28, 1965, then 14-year-old Cortese suffered severe injuries in a car accident. His parents eventually hired attorney Richard Horigan to handle the legal issues.
Cortese said he was fascinated by the legal process that unfolded. His understanding of what was happening also was aided by Horigan.
"He was very patient, explaining the details of the case to me," Cortese said.
Years later, after Cortese had earned his doctorate from Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H. in 1981, Cortese spent more than 5 years working as an associate attorney for the law firm of Horigan, Horigan, Pennock & Lombardo in Amsterdam.
Cortese said Horigan, in addition to being his mentor, is a "fabulous attorney and a wonderful gentleman."
Horigan said he noted how interested Cortese was in all parts of the proceedings. However, he never imagined that boy would one day grow up to be a judge.
Horigan said Cortese, throughout his career, has displayed an ability to keep learning.
"[Cortese] has always demonstrated great intelligence," he said.
Since being elected Family Court judge in 2002, Cortese said, it is not just his legal experience he relies on in court, but also his experience as a member of a family.
He was born and raised in Amsterdam, along with two brothers and four sisters. Cortese still resides in Amsterdam with his wife, Jerri, and their daughter, Anna Li.
When it is appropriate, Cortese said, he will share some of his own family experiences with parties in a case.
"So they know they are not alone in some of the problems they have to face," he said.