November 16, 2013
Late bloomer masters law
Mardis Kelsen started as a judge and became a lawyer at 49
McGRAW — Ask Mardis Kelsen about her career and she’ll laugh and ask, “Which career?”
The question is hardly a surprise considering the Cortland lawyer and longtime McGraw resident has been a judge, prosecutor and defense attorney.
Kelsen’s law career began in 1979, when her youngest child was starting school and she was looking to re-enter the work force.
She took over as Cortlandville Town Court’s chief court clerk with a year’s worth of college and the last job listed on her resume as waitressing and bar tending at L’Auberge Alpine, a French restaurant in McGraw.
Kelsen said law was never a field that she was interested in before, noting that she had focused on math and science in high school.
But her father, a teacher in the McGraw school district, was a constitutional historian, she said.
“So I had grown up with the law in my house,” she said. “And I found I had a knack for it. I really took to it.”
Two years later she ran for McGraw judge village seat and won, taking office in 1981, while still acting as Cortlandville’s chief court clerk.
In 1986, Kelsen took over for retiring Cortlandville Town Justice Donald Eaton, putting her in charge of both courts.
But it was not until 1993 when, at age 45, Kelsen started attending law school at Syracuse University, after graduating from SUNY Empire College with a bachelor’s degree in legal studies with minors in adolescent addiction counseling and child psychology.
McGraw Village Court was absorbed into the Cortlandville Town Court in 1998 — the same year Kelsen passed the bar exam and opened her own practice.
Kelsen continued to preside over the Cortlandville bench until 2003.
Cortlandville Town Board member Ron Rocco described Kelsen, whom he’s known for 30 years, as a “woman of many talents.”
“It isn’t easy starting your own practice,” Rocco said. “But it wasn’t easy to go to school and be a justice.”
Kelsen is very hardworking, Rocco said, noting that she would drive in to arraign defendants at 3:00 in the morning, saving some of them a night in jail.
“She won those (judge) elections year after year,” he said, “and went on to become an excellent lawyer.”
To Kelsen, being an effective judge is more about having a “judicial temperament” than a law degree.
A judge has to be fair and able to set emotions aside, Kelsen said.
“And you have to be a really good listener,” she said. “And some people can’t do any of those things. We’re human.”
Kelsen retired from the bench in 2003, hanging up her judge’s robe so she could concentrate on being a lawyer full time.
Today Kelsen practices law out of a historic building at 20 Court St., focusing on criminal, matrimonial, family and real estate law.
Her office, which was previously occupied by a number of noted Cortland physicians from the Higgins family, has been refurbished by her and her husband, John Schuhle, to feel like a home. The doors bear a note reminding clients not to let the cat out when they enter and leave.
Throughout her career, Kelsen has had a special focus on children.
For more than 20 years she volunteered with the Auburn Youth Prison Program, which is similar to a “scared straight” program.
Kelsen said that as judge she used to make the program part of a youth’s conditions of probation and then personally take them to the jail.
After going through the program twice, one 16-year-old boy returned to school the next day and asked his principal what he needed to do to graduate, Kelsen said.
The boy went on to raise his grades, excel at the school’s basketball team and have a career as a Marine, she said.
“Seeing children succeed has been really special,” Kelsen said.
In 2009, she took on the role of an assistant district attorney.
Kelsen said that as a prosecutor her job was to ensure that all the rest of the people’s rights were preserved.
“The prosecutor is a protector,” she said.
Kelsen said she left the District Attorney’s Office in 2010 because splitting her time as a prosecutor and in her practice was too much.
“I enjoyed it. I learned a lot,” she said. “I just wanted to concentrate on my practice.”
Kelsen said having been a judge, defense attorney and prosecutor has improved her as a lawyer.
“I think that having done all three of them gives me a really well-rounded perspective on how the system works,” she said.
One thing Kelsen continues to do as a retired town justice is officiate weddings.
The over 2,000 weddings she has officiated include one in the air space over Blodgett Mills and another on horseback in Solon.
So far in her varied career, Kelsen estimates that she’s handled 200,000 cases.
For new lawyers just entering the field her advice is simple: be prepared, protect your reputation and do not try to fool anyone.
“Never fake an answer,” she said. “If you don’t know, look it up.”
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