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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 26, 2009

With a Hilltown heritage behind her, Judge Garry steps up to the Appellate Division

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Elizabeth Garry, who grew up on the Hillcrest dairy farm in Berne, has been appointed to fill a vacancy on the Appellate Division, Third Department.

“I’ll be joining a varied group, working at the peak of their capability,” she said. “My dream is to be very good at this.”

Although she’s been on the eligible list for some time, Garry, a Supreme Court judge, said she was surprised when she got the call last month from the governor’s office. “I was trying a jury case and had just given the jury their instructions when I got a phone message there was a call to my chamber from the governor’s office,” she said. “So I was left on tether hooks.”

The appointment becomes effective today, March 19, and Garry will hear her first round of appellate arguments on March 26.

Between now and then, she said, she’ll be reading through boxes full of materials. “When you reach the bench,” she said of the state’s second-highest court, “you want to be fully conversant.”

Judge Garry is used to hard work.

“Farm life requires a level of discipline and common sense,” Garry told The Enterprise. “From my father I got a love of people that’s been really helpful to me.”

Her late father, Harry Garry, was known as “The Singing Farmer.” He performed locally and for years wrote a column for The Enterprise, called “Down on the Farm.” Active in the Farm Bureau, he was an advocate for farmers across the state. He died five years ago at the age of 95.

Her mother, Dr. Margery Smith, a retired family physician, was a pioneer in her field as a female doctor serving the rural Hilltowns. “My mom was successful,” she said.

“I learned the bedrock principles of our society from them,” said Garry of her parents. They taught her, by example, the value of service to the community and of hard work, she said.

Garry had been elected in 2006 to the State Supreme Court, Sixth Judicial District in New York’s southern tier where she lives. Before that, she had worked as a judge for the town of New Berlin and as a litigator for the Joyce Law Firm in Sherburne.

“A judge was what I always wanted to be,” said Garry this week. “I worked as an advocate because I needed those skills to prove a fact through evidence. To make evidentiary rulings, you better know how to do it from the other side.”

She went on about her reasons for wanting to be a judge: “Judges embody the best I could ever strive for in our society — ideals of fairness, impartiality, objective judgment, worth striving for every day.”

As a Supreme Court judge, the lowest level in the state’s three-tiered system, Garry handled cases independently. Now, as a member the Appellate Division, the middle level court, she will decide cases as part of a five-member panel. The Appellate Division hears appeals from the Supreme Court. The state’s top court, the Court of Appeals, much like the United States Supreme Court, selects a small number of precedent-setting cases to hear on appeal from the middle-level court.

“The entire nature of my work will change completely,” said Garry. “At the trial level, you hear testimony, you hear witnesses directly, and you judge their credibility, or you oversee jurors to make sure the process is fair.

“At the appellate level, you’re applying the broader principles to see if the process at the lower level was fair. The trial level is very personal...The appellate court reviews on an entirely different level.”

Garry said she is looking forward to working with an “absolutely spectacular” panel of judges. She went on, “The Third Department is widely respected for the work they do.” She said the presiding justice, Anthony V. Cardona, provides “great leadership.”

Asked if she had ambitions to serve on the state’s highest court, Garry gave a hearty laugh. “I’d be really arrogant to proclaim such a wish at this time,” she said. “I have to prove I can fulfill the trust that’s been put upon me.”

The annual salary for justices of the Appellate Division is $144,000, and the appointments are not subject to confirmation from the State Senate.

Life’s journey

Dr. Smith says that her daughter Elizabeth, growing up, was “a very bright child.” She says that of all four of her children, and proudly describes what each has accomplished. The oldest, Charles, is a farmer, now running Hillcrest Farm in Berne. Next is Franklyn, a professor at Colorado State Veterinary College, and then Johanna, a math professor at Dutchess Community College. Elizabeth is the youngest.

Like her older siblings, Elizabeth Garry attended Vincentian Institute in Albany, graduating from Bishop Maginn High School after VI closed before her senior year.

“She always had a mind of her own,” said Dr. Smith of her youngest child. “She was a good student but she didn’t exactly follow the rules.” She gives this example: The high school required that girls, as part of their uniform, wear a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar.

“She wore a white blouse but without the required collar,” said her mother. “She knew she’d be disciplined for it every day. She went to detention every day very calmly and did her homework.”

Garry went on to Alfred University where she studied psychology and religion, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1984. After graduating from college, Smith said, her daughter cast about to find a field that fit her. She worked jobs that ranged from being a Christmas elf to working in securities and insurance.

Garry remembers exactly when she decided to be a lawyer. She had a friend who was a lawyer, she said. “We were at a party where people were talking about ideas in a way that was new to me.” She went on to describe one of the things she likes about discourse on the law, “You can state a forceful opinion and a lawyer will say, ‘What about this circumstance?’”

Garry applied only to Albany Law School. “Mom, if I’m supposed to be a lawyer, I’ll get in,” she told her mother. She got in and graduated in 1990 at the top of her class, Dr. Smith said.

“I was introduced to the law as a body of ideas and principles that can be consistent yet evolving over time in a thoughtful and well-based manner because of precedent,” said Garry. “Law evolves in a manner that is reasoned.”

Garry went on to clerk for State Supreme Court Justice Irad S. Ingraham, a Republican, who crossed party lines to endorse her in the 2006 Supreme Court election.

Garry, a Democrat, beat the odds when she won the post in the Sixth Judicial district, 10 counties in the state’s rural southern tier, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, two to one.

“She won by 17,000,” Smith said at the time. “The farmers came through for her. Most of the farmers in those counties are Republicans. Harry Garry is still remembered in farm circles there.”

Ingraham told voters in the Sixth Judicial District that they were “sophisticated enough to look beyond political considerations and place primary emphasis on the legal abilities which she has.”

Garry also garnered endorsements in that race from her Congressman, Maurice Hinchey; Hillary Clinton, who was then New York’s senator; and the Judicial Candidate Committee, which gave her its top rating — highly qualified.

 Dr. Smith has put together a scrapbook chronicling her daughter’s successful Supreme Court campaign and election.

Near the start is a picture of Garry’s life companion, Betsy VanMechow. The couple lives in South New Berlin where they are raising three children together. VanMechow is pictured marching in a Dairy Council parade, carrying a sign that says, “Raised on a Dairy, Vote for Judge Garry.”

Near the close of the scrapbook is a picture of Elizabeth Garry in a black robe, right hand raised, taking the oath of office. Beneath it is a picture of a smiling Judge Garry surrounded by black-robed men, applauding.

“After the inauguration and speeches,” it says in Dr. Smith’s hand, “a standing ovation for the new Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth.”

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