LOCAL JURIST HELD STATEWIDE SWAY
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – While at Albany Law School, Judge Michael V. Coccoma remembered hearing stories from professor Francis Anderson about trying cases “out in the country” in the late 1940s and early ‘50s.
“He practiced law in Cooperstown,” said Coccoma. “Years later, when I was a county judge, he stopped into my courtroom and waited in the back for a break. We had a wonderful chat.”
Coccoma, a state Supreme Court judge who is also chief administrative judge for all state courts outside of New York City, is planning to retire at the end of the month after more than 25 years on the bench.
A Poughkeepsie native, Coccoma became interested in practicing law during his time at The Citadel, the South Carolina military academy.
“I was a history major, and I took a course in Constitutional law,” he said. “I was interested, so my dad arranged a meeting with a friend of ours, (Dutchess County Judge Raymond C. Baratta), and he furthered my interest.”
Coccoma went to Albany Law; his wife, Ellen, also a former classmate in Poughkeepsie, was studying there too. “We ran into each other,” he said.
He and Ellen moved to Coopers-town, where he set up his private practice in 1979. In 1980, he was appointed assistant district attorney.
“You meet all these interesting people with interesting cases,” he said. “I was traveling all over the county to all these little village courts, a lot of which were held in the evening.”
He was elected in 1994 as county judge, and also heard cases in family courts.
“It was a big transition,” he said. “As an attorney, you’re taught to be an advocate, but as a judge, you have to remain neutral and apply the law in an even-handed manner.”
After his election as a state Supreme Court judge in 2007, he was appointed administrative judge of the 10 Southern Tier counties of the Sixth Judicial District, in addition to his trial court duties.
But among his biggest accomplishments, he said, was the foundation of the county’s Drug Treatment court in 2008. Then-Judge Nettie Jean Scarzafava “did the research to get it started,” he said. “It saves peoples’ lives from the chains of addiction.”
In 2013, he was tasked with leading a team of criminal court judges from outside New York City as part of an effort to address a chronic backlog of pending criminal cases in Bronx County.
“They were really struggling with their number of cases, so they reached out to administrative judges to seek volunteers who knew how to manage cases,” he said.
Not content just to send others into New York City, he did his own stint on the Bronx bench. “This building had multiple courtrooms,” he said. “There was so much moving through. But by fall, we had made a significant impact.”
As deputy chief administrative judge for courts outside New York City, he supervised daily trial court operations in 57 counties, including over 600 state judges and 5,000 court employees in addition to town and village courts.
“I got a call from Ann Pfau,” – then chief administrative judge – “asking why my name wasn’t on the list of candidates. I was the newest administrative judge in the state, so my selection turned a number of heads!”
While supervising cases all over the state, he still heard cases in Otsego County, including the contentious one on the Oneonta Fire District. In 2018, he ruled the Town of Oneonta had no standing to prevent the Board of Fire Commissioners from dissolving, which it did. As it happened, that opened the door to a new town-city fire-protection agreement.
Currently, he is judge in the case where Oneonta neighbors sued City Hall to block the Lofts on Dietz, a 66-unit complex of artist lofts and apartments.
In retirement, he plans on keeping his law license, perusing arbitration and alternative dispute resolution.
“It’s time to step aside,” he said. “I want to give someone else a chance.”