"My mom is the reason I'm taking the next step."
Rob Smith, '90, is running for Warren County Family Court Judge
Robert Smith, '90, is a native of Queensbury and recently announced his intention to run for Warren County Family Court Judge.
Rob earned a business administration degree from SUNY Adirondack and a bachelor's degree in economics from SUNY Albany. He is an honors graduate of Albany Law School and began his legal career working for the late Richard J. Bartlett, at the firm of Bartlett, Pontiff, Stewart & Rhodes, PC in Glens Falls. Rob later took employment with attorney Stan Pritzker, now a justice on the New York State Supreme Court.
We spoke with Rob over lunch at The Docksider in Queensbury.
Q: Why did you choose to start your education at SUNY Adirondack?
A: After graduating from Queensbury, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had three careers in mind – an elementary school teacher, a lawyer, or an FBI agent. The FBI involved legal issues, so I thought I could become a lawyer and then move into the FBI with a law degree. It also just sounded cool to me at the time. On the other hand, I always loved kids and loved working with kids. When I graduated high school, the Queensbury School District had possibly one to two male teachers in the elementary school. I felt that the school needed more male teachers, and would be a good way to find a job relatively easily just out of college.
SUNY Adirondack was affordable and close to home. I didn’t have that need or desire that most kids have to get away from my parents and hometown. I loved the area. I also came from a family of five kids. My parents just couldn’t afford to pay for the rising costs of college, even back then. My parents worked very hard to provide for us, so I was not going to burden them with my education expenses. I also wasn’t sure what I wanted to become. So my thought was this: Why waste the money when I’m not sure what I want to do? One of the best parts about the school was the college’s open door policy – that is, if you wanted to speak to a professor, the door was always open. I had a much different experience at SUNY Albany – there were 50 to 200 people in one class, and you always wound up speaking to teaching assistants.
SUNY Adirondack is a hidden gem in this area. It really bothers me that the college is still looked at as “Bay Road Tech,” or a place where kids go because they couldn’t get into a “real college.” But it was very good to me, and for me. To date, it’s the best schooling I’ve received. I hear kids say, “I’m just gonna go to (SUNY Adirondack)” and I stop ‘em and I say, “If you are unsure of what you want to do, this will be the best decision you’ll ever make for your education. Period.” My oldest son will be taking classes there next year.
Q: Who inspired you at SUNY Adirondack?
A: I can honestly say I didn’t have a bad professor here. Drew Bonacic was a good professor and he dealt with students well. John O’Kane and Richard Tarantino, instructors in the criminal justice program, were great teachers. John was retired from the NYPD and Dick was a Glens Falls City Court judge – he taught a lot of classes and guided me toward a law degree. Tarantino preached that a law degree was self-sustaining, and made me understand that it was better to get the degree while you’re young rather than try later when life becomes a little more complicated.
Q: What motivated you to transfer to SUNY Albany, and then move on to Albany Law?
A: I was fascinated by economics and understood it well. By the time I graduated from SUNY Albany, though, I had made up my mind to take Mr. Tarantino’s advice and go to law school. My uncle, G. Emmett Smith, went to law school and I followed in his footsteps.
Q: What has changed in the practice of law since you earned your degree?
A: I have worked for the Warren County Court System for most of my legal career, so my opinion will lean more towards what I see the courts doing. The court system today recognizes the need for treatment. It has finally realized that it’s cheaper to treat someone as opposed to incarcerating them. Judges also recognize the need to get a real understanding of why people are appearing before them. Mental health is another area that needs immediate attention.
Q: You were instrumental in creating the first Treatment Court in Warren County, right?
A: Yes – Warren County Court Judge John Austin and I created the first treatment court. We worked in collaboration with our District Attorney, Kate Hogan, Director of Probation Robert Iusi, the defense bar and various treatment agencies to create the first felony treatment court in Warren County’s history. It was a felony treatment court, designed for recidivists who continue to commit crimes due to substance abuse related issues. The idea behind the court was quite simple: Help these people with their addiction and decrease the likelihood of them committing new crimes. If you cure the addiction, you stop the criminality. I am proud to say that we have had a lot of success in that.
We’ve had over 200 graduates of the Treatment Court and approximately 75 are currently in the program now. But it’s not easy. A person really has to want to make the necessary changes in order to graduate. It’s very intensive and takes one to three years to complete. There’s a lot of random drug testing, a lot of meetings, and scheduled court appearances.
Family court has an adult family treatment court and a juvenile treatment court that were both modeled after ours. Although these programs have not seen as much success as ours, I do believe that my extensive knowledge and experience in this area can turn those programs around. Understanding the nature of addiction and obtaining the proper treatment is critical in assisting addicts to live more productive lives, and more importantly, maintain healthier and safer relationships with their children, family members and other members of society. Unfortunately, substance abuse issues are all too prevalent in many Family Court cases. After hearing the speakers at the recent “Hometown v. Heroin” presentation at SUNY Adirondack, I am convinced that a juvenile treatment program is critical in halting the spread of drug and alcohol use among our youth. I would take the necessary steps to regenerate the somewhat “defunct” Juvenile Treatment Court Program in Warren County.
Q: Why did you decide to run for Family Court Judge?
A: The main reason is quite simple: I really enjoy helping people solve problems and working with kids. I have worked with kids, in some capacity, my entire life. I have coached hundreds of kids in our community in various sports. I am a board member of Big Brothers and Big Sisters and was recently assigned a new “little.” Seeing the impact that I can have on a child’s life is very gratifying to me. Being as involved in the community as I am, however, has also allowed for me to see the many different family dynamics that exist, and the many problems associated with those dynamics. Families are struggling, and if I can provide them with a map to a safer and healthier place, then I feel that it is my obligation as a member of this community to do so.
I have also seen far too many cases come to county court where the individual has an extensive family court file. These individuals have now graduated from PINS and Juvenile Delinquency proceedings to adult felons. Part of me wonders if something is getting missed. Having two Judges will allow them each to spend more time with each file and hopefully stop this trend.
I also believe that my knowledge and experience with treatment court can have a tremendous impact on many of the families and kids in Family Court. You have to understand, the Treatment Courts in the Warren County Court System can have a positive impact not just on the participants, but their families and our community as a whole. The problems in Family Court – substance abuse and addictions – are similar to those in other courts. If you can beat the addiction, life becomes as little less chaotic. It effects positive change.
I have 16 and 14 year old boys. Raising kids today is so different than it was even 10 years ago. I think Family Court needs a Judge who is young enough to understand today’s kids and families and strong enough to handle the issues. I feel I have both qualities.
Q: One of the biggest reasons you are embarking on this campaign is in memory of your mother, Joann.
A: My mom passed away 15 years ago. She’s one of the reasons I’m taking the next step. She loved kids. Both she and my father continue to have a tremendous impact on my life and how I view things.
Both of my parents grew up in Glens Falls, my mother on Third Street and my father on Cherry Street. My father lost his dad when he was 6 years old. He was a worker and helped take care of his mom at a very young age. He has one of the brightest minds and a memory which I envy. He worked seven days a week to provide for his family and showed me how important it was to take care of your family.
My mom grew up in Glens Falls and loved kids. I am confident that is where my love and passion for kids comes from. She always tried to see the best in everyone, and instilled that belief in me. She understood that things aren’t always what they appeared to be, and always tried to not judge a book by its cover.
My mother was very handy and loved to reupholster furniture. I remember her and I driving around Glens Falls one day and she saw a ratty old couch sitting on a curb. When she stopped to look at it, I was embarrassed. Then she started to explain to me why she had stopped. She said, “You look at this piece of furniture and you see a ratty old couch. I look at it and see the study frame that’s hidden underneath. It’s the frame that makes the couch, not the cloth.” We ended up taking that couch home. Mom re-upholstered it and made it brand new again. That was always one of her many talents, taking something old and making it new again.
I view kids and people in a similar light. I don’t judge people because they dress differently or look different than I do. I try to see the good in everyone and try to bring the best out of everyone. It is one of the reasons why I love coaching kids. Perhaps my ideas and suggestions can take these broken families and kids and make them new again.
I’m hoping my story will send a message to kids in the area. I started from simple beginnings, went to SUNY Adirondack, and now I’m running for Family Court Judge. The sky’s the limit.
For more information on Rob Smith, go to www.robsmithforjudge.com or visit his Facebook page at RobSmithforJudge.