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Area’s newest federal judge has a lot on his docket

U.S. District Judge Frank Geraci Jr.’s ascent to the federal bench came with a gift of sorts: 300 active cases transferred to him from the Rochester Division’s other judges.
 
Installed in an upper-floor office in the Kenneth B. Keating Federal Building, Geraci is watched over by a rotating detail of security guards who stop and screen visitors approaching his office door.
 
That precaution, he explains, is taken because until he is permanently assigned to chambers like those of his more senior colleagues, Geraci’s temporary quarters are not behind an intercom and buzzer-equipped door.
 
The temporary office also lacks a private judge’s door leading to a courtroom. That means he must be escorted by a guard on any foray through a publicly accessible corridor to get to or return from a courtroom.
 
Geraci, 61, was sworn in by District Judge David Larimer in a small private ceremony in early January. He was not slated to begin presiding over trials until April.
 
Part of the delay was to make time for a two-week training course for new federal judges that he attended in Los Angeles.
 
Geraci has spent much of his first three months on the federal bench familiarizing himself with the dockets of the 300 cases he is taking over. That has meant poring over briefs, pleadings, motions, attorney letters and other court papers in civil disputes that have been dragging through the courts for years.
 
Larimer says Geraci, whom he has known for some 30 years, is capable, experienced and qualified to wade through the morass of paper.
 
Still, Larimer adds, "I’m not sure turning over that many cases to a new judge is fair."
 
The amount of pondering, fact checking and contemplation that goes into any opinion a judge hands down might be a feature of jurisprudence sometimes poorly understood by the public, Geraci says.
 
"It’s not just a matter of reading through the papers," he says. "It’s looking behind the papers to get at what’s the just thing in that case."
 
Geraci has approached the extraordinary demands of his new position methodically, says Magistrate Judge Jonathan Feldman of the Rochester Division.
 
"Frank approaches new challenges as an opportunity to learn. He met with each judge in Rochester, observed the way they handle their busy dockets and then jumped right into managing his own caseload," says Feldman, a onetime law partner of Geraci and a former colleague as an assistant U.S. attorney.
 
William Skretny, a Buffalo federal judge and the Western District’s chief judge, calls Geraci exceptionally well-qualified. While he regrets having to hand a new federal judge so many cases, Skretny says, the transfers were a necessity.

Loads of cases
Not even the federal judges of the Southern District of New York, which includes the crowded New York City courts, or the Eastern District, which includes Albany, handle more cases, Skretny says.
 
The Western District has the nation’s sixth-highest caseload volume and is seventh in the country in the number of cases assigned to each judge. This is largely due to the district being judicially understaffed for some two decades.
 
The federal court administration did a study of various courts’ judicial needs in the early 1990s and recommended in 1992 that the Western District add a judgeship. Congress authorized another position a year later but has not funded it, Skretny says, so the judgeship remains a paper phantom.
 
"Our judges have done a pretty good job of keeping up," Skretny says.
 
But new cases keep the Western District’s caseload more or less the same-large and unlikely to be significantly reduced soon. Much of the backlog consists of complicated civil and commercial disputes, some of which have been shunted to the side for years.
 
The Constitution requires that criminal cases be handled with some alacrity, so they move through the courts with some speed, Skretny says. Many criminal cases continue even after sentencing because of self-filed jailhouse complaints from prisoners alleging mistreatment by jailers or claiming they were sentenced illegally. Almost all fail, Skretny says, but judges have to read through the prisoners’ often-lengthy, handwritten complaints and give the convicts a day in court.
 
Four of the Western District’s seven judges sit in Rochester. But only the newest appointee, Geraci, is on active status. Larimer and district judges Charles Siragusa and Michael Telesca are on senior status, a category open to federal judges 65 and older that allows them to keep working but at their own pace and under no obligation to stay.
 
Siragusa and Larimer maintain full case loads. Telesca, who is in his 80s, is handling all of the division’s Social Security cases.
 
Little other than a sense of duty or personal preference keeps judges of senior status on the bench. Once they reach retirement age, federal judges can step away from the bench with a pension equal to the final salary they earned on the bench, plus annual cost-of-living adjustments.
 
Even if he does not decide to retire fully, Telesca, Siragusa or Larimer could be tempted by some other offer at any time-perhaps a prestigious partnership at a law firm, Skretny worries. He prefers not to think about what would happen to the Rochester Division if any of the three were to accept such an offer.

A new venue
Geraci, a former federal prosecutor and assistant Monroe County district attorney, also practiced privately for a time and is familiar with criminal and civil matters from both sides of the bench. Still, he allows, there are differences between federal and state court procedures that take getting used to.
 
"It’s a steep learning curve," Geraci sighs. "It’s been baptism by fire."
 
In Monroe County Court, where he had served since 1999, Geraci dealt exclusively with felony criminal cases. And in county courts, he says, judges have a measure of discretion the federal judges lack.
 
To illustrate the point, Geraci pulls out a thick binder filled with the rules of the complicated point system federal judges must follow to compute the sentences federal convicts will serve. A range of years assigned to a crime or class of crime is a starting point, and things get more complicated from there.
 
Not that Geraci is complaining.
 
Geraci mentions the likelihood of having to sacrifice some golf dates in a regular Tuesday night game he has played with a group of grammar school friends as the single regrettable but necessary downside of his new responsibilities.
 
On the whole, he seems at ease, satisfied with the progress he is making and eager to meet the job’s demands.
 
"You get a little more comfortable every day," Geraci says.

City native
The Rochester native is one of five children, the only boy in an Italian and Irish family. He grew up in the city’s 19th Ward.
 
Geraci and his four sisters attended Catholic schools. He graduated from McQuaid Jesuit High School; his sisters went to the now-closed St. Agnes High School.
 
Geraci’s father, a Sicilian immigrant, was a restaurant worker who ended up managing the Manger Hotel. A vestige of the erstwhile Rochester hostelry survives as the skeleton of the Windstream Corp. building at the former Midtown Plaza site.
 
Geraci’s mother was the American-born daughter of Irish immigrants. Geraci still remembers the lilting tones of his maternal grandmother, who hailed from County Cork.
 
When he was growing up, he says, the 19th Ward was a middle- and working-class stronghold where "some of the neighborhood kids ended up as cops and some ended up in jail."
 
Geraci knew which side he came down on.
 
"I loved government and politics," he says.
 
For college, Geraci chose the University of Dayton, a Marianist Catholic school in Dayton, Ohio. A political science major, he was inspired by Gerald Kearns, now an emeritus constitutional and criminal law professor in the school’s political science department.
 
"Jerry Kearns got me interested in the law, and I decided to make it my career," Geraci says.
 
After earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1973, Geraci took a year off before enrolling in law school, but he still managed to advance his legal ambitions.
 
That summer, Geraci’s father asked him to file a small claims complaint for him in a dispute whose particulars Geraci no longer recalls. Geraci fell into conversation with the Rochester City Court clerk, who on hearing that Geraci was a political science major, urged him to apply for a job as his deputy.
 
Geraci spent the next 14 months supervising the court’s civil branch. A side benefit of the job: He met his wife, Karla, a City Hall employee who still works for the city as a human resources official. The couple now lives in the Browncroft area. They are parents of daughters ages 32 and 30 and sons ages 26 and 18.
 
Geraci’s father, then in his 50s, died of a heart condition in 1974. He had been told years earlier after a heart attack in his mid-30s that he needed an operation, but he never had the surgery.
 
"He couldn’t afford to take the time off," Geraci says.
 
In 1974, Geraci returned to Dayton, enrolling in the university’s law school as he had planned. The deputy court clerk job was good for a while. But there was no next rung on what Geraci hoped would be an ascending career ladder in the law.

Career path
After earning a J.D. in 1977, Geraci went to work as executive assistant to Lawrence Kirwin, then chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. In 1978, he was hired as a Monroe County assistant district attorney, and city courts were among his first assignments.
 
He left the district attorney’s office in 1983 as chief of special investigations, overseeing prosecutions of gambling, narcotics, prostitution and organized crime. In 1983, Geraci moved to the U.S. attorney’s office in Rochester, where he did civil and criminal prosecutions and worked on an organized crime strike force.
 
Feldman and Geraci decided to leave the prosecutor positions to start a private practice in 1987. As private attorneys, they handled criminal and civil matters. In 1989, they started one of the area’s first private alternative dispute resolution practices, United States Arbitration and Mediation of Western New York.
 
"Helping litigants resolve their disputes is a fundamental responsibility of our court system," Feldman says. "Of all the experiences we had litigating civil and criminal cases, none would be more important to our effectiveness as judges than our experience as mediators."
 
Geraci concurs. In civil matters especially, he says, settlements are often preferable to court rulings. If the law needs to be followed strictly, outcomes often are less desirable for both sides in a civil dispute.
 
Geraci ran for a City Court judgeship and was elected to a 10-year term in 1991. In 1998, he won the Monroe County Court seat, and he was re-elected for a 14-year term in 2008. He sees winning the federal judgeship as a fortuitous turn to what he hopes will be a long career on the bench.
 
When his County Court term would have expired in 2022, he would have been 70, an age perilously close to 75, when the state requires judges to retire. On the federal bench, the question will not come up, and Geraci makes it clear that he has no retirement plans.
 
"I like it here," he says.

Frank Geraci
Title: U.S. district judge, Rochester Division, Western District of New York
Age: 61
Education: B.A., political science, University of Dayton, 1973; J.D., University of Dayton Law School, 1978
Family: Wife, Karla Peterson; daughters Kimberly Brock, 32, and Pamela Tellier, 30; sons Michael, 26, and Matthew, 18
Home: Rochester
Leisure pursuits: Spending time with family, golfing
Quote: "It’s not just a matter of reading through the papers. It’s looking behind the papers to get at what’s the just thing in that case."

4/12/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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