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Reflections on Judge Telesca from Israel

Word reached me only last week of the recent death of Judge Michael A. Telesca. While I’m sure he has been appropriately eulogized by the Rochester legal community, I want to share a few belated words about this man, who served as a fine professional and personal example to me.

As a young lawyer, I had my first court appearance in Judge Telesca’s courtroom in early 1981. At the time he was the Monroe County Surrogate. I was representing the adult children of a deceased woman who were contesting the will, which left everything to the very elderly second husband.

I called my first witness, the elderly widower. My first question, as might be expected, was: “What is your name?” The witness replied: “Huh?” Judge Telesca said: “Approach the bench!” And when the other lawyer and I reached the bench, he said: “This man is not testifying in my courtroom. We’re going to settle this right here, right now.”

And we did. With Judge Telesca sitting patiently on the bench, we went back and forth to our clients and to the judge, and we settled the case in open court. I learned a lot more that day from Judge Telesca about being a good lawyer than I would ever have learned by actually trying the case.

I also handled some adoptions in front of Judge Telesca, which were usually ceremonial appearances in his chambers. He always told my clients what a good lawyer I was and how I looked like a movie star. (I’m not sure which movies he was watching.)

A few years later, when he was appointed to the U.S. District Court, I had quite a few occasions to appear in front of him. The Reagan Administration had implemented a policy requiring recipients of social security disability benefits to reestablish their entitlement to benefits and many were turned down. Judge Telesca disapproved of this policy and criticized it, and, indirectly, the President who had appointed him to the federal bench.

I brought several such cases before Judge Telesca on behalf of disabled people whose benefits had been terminated, including a woman who suffered chronic debilitating pain from a degenerative spinal disease, a man who was on the waiting list for a heart transplant that never came in time, a woman who was severely hobbled but who sounded, from the government doctor’s report, “like John Rambo” (to use Judge Telesca’s words). He ruled on behalf of these unfortunate people every time I appeared in front of him.

Again, the words he spoke to me in that first court appearance stayed with me: “Not in my courtroom!”

In 1989 I moved to Israel with my family. A little more than a year later, the first Gulf War broke out and Israel was deluged with scud missiles fired from Iraq. A friend who was a reporter for the Times-Union wrote a series of profiles on my family and how we were coping with the situation. Then one day, the fax machine at my office in Tel Aviv spat out a letter from Judge Telesca, in which he wrote:

“I have followed your adventure through newspaper articles and I truly admire you for your deep beliefs. I wish you well and I hope this conflict comes to a peaceful resolution very soon. We pray for your safety and well being.”

I still have the letter and cherish it as a memento from a giant, both on the bench and in real life. Mike Telesca was a class act.

Ezra Katzen practiced law at Lacy Katzen from 1980 to 1989 and now lives in Hod Hasharon, Israel.