Last week, we lost a hometown hero and legal legend — U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca.
It is hard to find a lawyer in Rochester who does not have a story about how Judge Telesca said or did something kind and inspirational that has stuck with them and made them a better person or a better lawyer. Over the last month, the MCBA had been collecting videos from lawyers and courthouse staff to be compiled into a retirement gift thanking Judge Telesca for his 38 years of service on the federal bench. Nearly 50 people have contributed their personal stories — a legacy of appreciation and gratitude for the example and leadership the judge established.
I will relate one of my own stories, which occurred when I was just a few years out of law school. After I second-chaired a trial, Judge Telesca called me and told me he wanted to “shake things up” in the legal community. His idea? He wanted me and Angela Panzarella, then a young litigation associate at Harris Beach, to be his guests at the upcoming Second Circuit Judicial Conference. At the time, invitations to the conference had generally been the coveted domain of Rochester’s senior (male) litigators and (mostly male) bar leaders. I was clueless, but the senior litigators who learned of Judge Telesca’s intentions were not. Yes, he had certainly shaken things up. When we arrived at Lake George, there were few women in attendance who were not spouses, and the connections I made that weekend led to numerous invitations over the last 20 years to serve on committees and statewide legal initiatives. And, of course, Angela has gone on to great things, serving currently as the CEO of the YWCA of Rochester & Monroe County.
The video tributes tell similar stories of Judge Telesca’s personal interest in careers and family lives of lawyers in public and private practice. There are recollections of receiving personal notes when lawyers experienced the loss of a family member, or a difficult personal situation. Of words of encouragement and acts of assistance — in finding jobs or dealing with life challenges. Judge Telesca established warm and close relationships with his law clerks and student externs and I received numerous calls informing me that his latest student was “the best ever” and would be a great hire.
He had high standards, of conduct and in attire. Not a fan of dress-down in the office, or the evolution of fashion, he believed that lawyers’ appearance should reflect the honor of being a member of the profession, including on weekends. He also had no problem calling lawyers on conduct that did not meet his standards. After particularly acrimonious motions, he would not hesitate to call the lawyers on both sides — privately — to share his view that it had “not been their finest hour.”
Of course, Judge Telesca’s particular talent — his ability to settle even the most intractable disputes between the most difficult personalities — was legendary. He had a masterful way of patiently listening to people, understanding their motivations and then defusing the situation with a mixture of empathy, practicality and humor. Like many lawyers, I saw this in action: He would listen to both sides, ask penetrating questions, and then make a proposal. That proposal was usually a reasonable and realistic way for both sides to get to “yes” — and it almost always brought about a settlement.
It was no accident that the building at State, Main and Exchange that houses the MCBA and the legal services providers bears Judge Telesca’s name. When the request was made of the judge to “borrow” his name for the building, he demurred and suggested that there were others more deserving of such an honor. But Judge Telesca’s commitment to justice for all was unwavering. He will be remembered for his quest to bring justice to the former inmates of Attica after decades of litigation, presiding over weeks of harrowing testimony of nearly 200 former prisoners during the summer of 2000, and then rendering a detailed decision dividing up the negotiated settlement fund among the claimants. Reading the lengthy opinion summarizing the stories of terror and fear underscores Judge Telesca’s efforts to provide closure and dignity to all of those who had suffered for years from the trauma of the prison riots.
In 2003, Judge Telesca was the keynote speaker on Law Day and his comments, focusing on Susan B. Anthony, provide insight into his philosophy of judging. As he stated then:
“I have a mystical feeling about the judiciary. I think there is something about this institution and the responsibility placed on us who are appointed or elected as judges that requires us to serve above the expectations of the presidents who appoint us or the political party under whose banner we campaigned. … Our primary loyalty is to the oath we take to support and defend the Constitution.”
He had no patience or respect for Judge J. Ward Hunt, who presided over Susan B. Anthony’s trial over a century earlier, refused to allow her to testify in her own defense, and found her guilty as a matter of law of the crime of voting. Judge Telesca’s Law Day remarks noted that the plaque on her bust in the Canandaigua courthouse serves as a reminder that “Justice Denied Here – 1873.” Judge Telesca ended his talk with an exhortation to the lawyers to pursue their “highest calling” and be “Drum Majors for Justice” by protecting constitutionally guaranteed rights for all.
This year, as part of the national commemoration of Law Day, we will celebrate the centennial of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in a CLE at the Century Club, followed by our annual Law Day reception across the street at The Strathallan on Thursday, April 30. Deborah Hughes, President and CEO of The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, will speak on the significance of the Rule of Law to the suffragette movement. As we reflect on Law Day on Rochester’s prominent place in history, I will also remember a man whose profound vision of justice fueled a personal quest to make that vision a reality for all.
Carolyn G. Nussbaum is president of the Monroe County Bar Association and is a partner and litigator at Nixon Peabody LLP. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.