Judge set to retire, again, kind of

Former state Supreme Court Justice Richard T. Aulisi relaxes Wednesday in his chambers at the County Office Building in Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)

JOHNSTOWN — When is retirement officially retirement?

In the case of former state Supreme Court Justice Richard T. “Dick” Aulisi, it’s complicated.

The longtime Caroga Lake litigant and jurist hit 76 years old in December – the age the New York State Uniform Court System says all its judges must absolutely retire and vacate their benches.

But don’t tell that to Aulisi, who remains occupying his Supreme Court chambers in Johnstown for the foreseeable future.

His new title is judicial hearing officer, and his cases could still take him anywhere in upstate New York. He can even serve as a judge again.

“I love to work,” Aulisi said Wednesday. “I love the work. I enjoy dealing with lawyers. It’s what I’ve done for 50 years.”

Aulisi was a justice for the Fulton County’s state Supreme Court in the 4th Judicial District of New York until Dec. 22 when he retired. As a Republican, he was first elected to this position in 1999 and started in 2000. He first retired at the end of 2012, due to reaching the mandatory constitutional retirement age of 70 for judges in New York state.

But according to state law, Supreme Court judges only can continue past 70 and serve up to three, two-year terms if they desire. They are usually needed. If they reach 76, all bets are off. They have to retire. Aulisi took the state up on that offer, aging out at 76 in December.

But that’s not where the story ends.

Aulisi said this week that yes, although he’s officially retired: “I’m basically doing the same things as before.” Although he has presided over numerous Supreme Court civil actions, the local jurist has mainly handled asbestos-related litigation, especially during his two-year extensions. He’s become somewhat of a valuable expert. Those cases can often center on liability for persons exposed to Mesothelioma, an aggressive and rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

“I was asked to stay to continue to handle, primarily, asbestos litigation in upstate New York,” Aulisi said.

New York state’s court system asked Aulisi to remain on with a new title of “judicial hearing officer,” handling asbestos cases anywhere within the court system’s 28-county Third Judicial Department. That’s basically the eastern part of upstate New York.

Aulisi was earning $208,000 annually as a Supreme Court justice, and is taking a hefty pay cut.

But the story doesn’t end there, either. Remember how New York doesn’t allow its judges to work past 76? The state’s making an exception in Aulisi’s case. With the permission of 11-county 4th Judicial District Administrative Judge Vito Caruso, he can still don his Supreme Court robes if he’s needed again for regular Supreme Court.

“I can still try non-asbestos cases,” Aulisi explained.

Still, his asbestos litigation calendar is already booked solid. Case files, diagrams and other materials were sprawled and spread across his chamber desks this week. He said this week’s case was settled, allowing him to operate this week out of his chambers.

“I have now currently one [asbestos case] scheduled every week through June 2020,” Aulisi related.

Meanwhile, officially, Fulton County’s Supreme Court seat is now vacant. There is no longer an official, elected justice based in Johnstown. But visiting justices from other counties can travel to Fulton County and try cases. For instance, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Sise is based in nearby Fonda.

Aulisi said some of the larger counties have more Supreme Court justices, and decisions can sometimes be political. But he said the state may someday recognize another Fulton County resident for a slot on the local Supreme Court bench.

“It could happen this year,” he said.

Even though his legal career isn’t apparently over by any stretch, Aulisi reflects back on his days from being in private practice, representing clients, up through his days as a jurist.

“I’ve had a remarkable career,” Aulisi said. “It’s been a great pleasure for me. I’ve had a phenomenal staff.”

Some of that staff is staying for this new chapter in his life. Among the conditions for him to stay, he requested he maintain some of that staff. They include longtime confidential law clerk Mark Canary, and personal secretary Terri Brown, who has been with Aulisi 40 years.

“I just want to say how grateful I am for the career I’ve had not only as a lawyer and a judge,” Aulisi said. “I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. I’ve had great success.”

Aulisi received his B.A. degree from Hartwick College in 1966; and his J.D. degree from Albany Law School in 1969.

He worked as a private practice lawyer in Gloversville prior to his election to the Supreme Court in 2000

He practiced law for 30 years in Gloversville and was elected to the state Supreme Court in 1999.

He is the former president of the Fulton County Bar Association; a former member of the New York State Committee on Professional Standards and served as its chairman. He was a member of the Capital Defenders Panel – a 16-member statewide group created to review applications by attorneys who applied for appointment to capital murder cases.

As a former partner in the firm of Caputo, Aulisi and Skoda, and later Aulisi and Skoda, Judge Aulisi was actively engaged in an extensive civil and criminal trial practice. He handled cases at all levels of trial and Appellate Courts in the State of New York and tried criminal and civil cases in other states and in many of the counties across the State of New York, as well as in Federal Court.

He served as a special prosecutor for Fulton County and for 21 years served as an assistant county attorney.

In addition to handling his assigned Supreme Court calendars in Fulton, Montgomery, Schenectady and Warren Counties, his asbestos litigation has been consuming in court and out. He has participated as a guest speaker at a number of national asbestos conferences, and has served as a speaker and panel member at a number of other litigation conferences and seminars.

Aulisi has served as a member of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics, the New York State Judicial Advisory Council and the New York State Unified Court System’s Litigation Coordinating Panel.

He is a member of the Fulton County Bar Association, Montgomery County Bar Association, New York Italian American Bar Association and the Association of Justices of the Supreme Court of the State of New York.

He and his wife, Ann, are the parents of four children and have four grandchildren.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at [email protected]

By Patricia Older

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