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January 2, 2014

 

City judge steps down as he hits mandatory retirement age

0102Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
City Judge Tom Meldrim talks on Friday about what led him to practice law while in his office at City Hall.

By SARAH BULLOCK
Staff Reporter
sbullock@cortlandstandardnews.net

As 2013 ends, so does the tenure of City Judge Thomas Meldrim.
Bound by a state law that requires judges to step down at age 70, Meldrim could not serve another 10-year term.
“My term ends by virtue of my age,” the 70-year-old said. “Otherwise, I might have stayed on a year or two. Either way, it works out fine.”
Meldrim will be replaced by Elizabeth Burns.
Meldrim first became a city judge 20 years ago after serving for 10 years as a part-time city prosecutor, as well as a part-time assistant district attorney, while still practicing privately.
After his assistant district attorney position became full-time and Judge Lynn Dorset stepped down from the bench, Meldrim decided it was a good time for him to run for city judge.
“It was a court that I enjoyed,” said Meldrim, who noted that at the time the judge position was part-time and allowed him to continue working in private practice. “It was a good opportunity for me.”
In 1999, the position became full-time and Meldrim stopped working in private practice.
In the beginning, Meldrim said his inexperience left him working long hours, but as he spent more time on the bench, he became more experienced and got a more experienced, stronger staff.
“That was huge, to have the strong staff, which continues to this day,” Meldrim said, referring to the court clerks.
In 2004, the state judiciary asked Meldrim to form a new court that changes the way defendants accused of substance-abuse crimes were dealt with: drug court.
The point of drug court is to deal with the underlying addictions that cause people to commit drug- and alcohol-related crimes, Meldrim said.
Instead of sending a defendant to jail, he or she is sent to court where the Cortland County District Attorney’s Office, Probation Department, Public Defender’s Office, counselors and the treatment court coordinator work together to help him or her get and stay sober.
The court includes regular and random drug and alcohol testing, weekly counseling and inpatient treatment as needed, Meldrim said.
To graduate from court, a person must have been sober for 365 days, he said, adding that if someone slips up, they are docked 90 days.
Six people graduated from the program in December, Meldrim said, noting that there are typically about 50 participants.
While the court is not perfect, it does offer real advantages for the city, he said.
“It’s not only savings for the community, it’s good for people and families,” Meldrim said.
“(Meldrim’s) very dedicated to that drug court and we find it a useful vehicle,” District Attorney Mark Suben said. “That’s certainly something that he should be remembered for.”
Suben noted that unlike other drug courts, Meldrim’s deals with alcohol abuse as well as drugs.
Serving the community is one of the aspects of the job Meldrim said he enjoyed most.
“You’re doing a job where you feel that you are somewhat making a difference,” he said. “I would get up and not have a problem going to work.”
A lot has changed in the city in the 20 years Meldrim has presided as judge.
The city has witnessed an increase in serious and drug-related crimes, he said, noting that the community has also been stressed by job losses.
“Drugs seem to be a way of people making money,” he said. “People need jobs. Jobs solve a lot of problems.”
To Meldrim, being a judge really comes down to simply making judgment calls.
“If you’re going to be a judge, you got to make a decision,” he said. “You make a decision, you think about it, you do what you think is best.”
Sometimes those decisions were not always popular.
“He’s sometimes more lenient than the cops would like,” Suben said of Meldrim. “He calls them the way he sees them and he will be remembered as a very conscientious judge.”
But that’s not to say that Meldrim and the city police were always at odds.
“I liked Judge Meldrim,” said city police Lt. Rick Troyer. “He’s very professional, very honest, very friendly and he was very easy to work with.”
Meldrim was there when officers needed him, Troyer said.
“I didn’t agree with everything that he did,” Troyer said, “but I always respected what he did.”

 

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