Upon re-election, Leone reflects on career as Cayuga County, Family Court Judge
AUBURN — Every day, Judge Thomas G. Leone looks out the window in his chambers at the historic old post office building on Genesee Street in Auburn. He looks past St. Mary’s Church, where he is a parishioner, and past the prison, where several inmates who have appeared before him reside. And he looks toward the town of Throop, where his father, Thomas “Tucker” Leone, was born and raised.
“A day doesn’t go by when ... I look out my window and think how lucky I am to be serving my community,” Leone said, smiling. “It’s just very, very gratifying to me, and I never want to lose sight of that.”
Elected as the Cayuga County Court Judge in 2006, Leone has worn many hats over the past decade, serving as the Family Court judge, acting state Supreme Court justice and acting surrogate as well. And as he was re-elected for a second term earlier this month, the multi-bench judge said he is ready to do it all again.
“I’m actually looking forward to just maintaining what I’ve done all this time,” he said. “To be as fair as I possibly can and to really assist the families that come before us in family court.”
Still, as Leone looks ahead, he said it’s important that he look back to where his life in law began — with his dad, Tucker.
A well-known attorney in the city of Auburn, Tucker first introduced his son to the justice system at a young age.
“I remember going to night court with him when I was a kid ... and some guy would get up and the judge would say, ‘You really need to get an attorney,’” Leone said. “My father would listen, and the next thing you know he’d run up there and say, ‘Judge, I’m representing this guy.’”
More often that not, Leone said his father’s clients couldn’t pay him for his service, but his dad didn’t mind.
“Money didn’t mean anything to him,” he said. “There were so many people he never charged a dime. ... He saw the good in everybody.”
And that’s something Leone tries to see from his seat as county court judge, a seat he and his family have worked hard to fill.
Leone recalled the times his Republican father ran for district attorney and judge in the 1970s, outnumbered in the then strongly Democratic city. And he recalled his own campaign in 1995 when he ran against James Vargason for Cayuga County District Attorney and lost.
“It took me about a year to get over that pain,” Leone said. “So when I told my family and close friends that I was going to run for judge (in 2006), a lot of them tried to talk me out of it. ... They said, ‘You’re a Democrat in a Republican county, there’s just no way you can beat him.’”
But Leone did, and he began his first term as Cayuga County Court Judge in January 2007. Since then, he said not much has changed in court other than some additional rules and regulations that weren’t in place 10 years ago.
“I think our court systems are somewhat reflective of society, so when society changes obviously we change as well,” he said. “I mean, it’s always evolving, but they really don’t take much away. They usually just add another layer.”
Now, Leone is preparing for his second 10-year term as county court judge. Leone — who turns 60 in February — ran unopposed in November, another victory for him and his father, who passed away in 2011.
“It’s really tough to recruit somebody because (Leone) is a really popular judge and a very popular guy in the community,” Cayuga County GOP Chairman Jeff Herrick said in an interview with The Citizen in June.
“I guess the fact that no one did run against me was gratifying,” Leone said. “I’m not so sure if it’s respect for me or respect for the position or maybe it was validation that I have been doing a good job for the past 10 years.”
And that’s something he plans to continue doing for the next decade, he said, as he remains focused on being fair and seeing the good in everyone.
“These decisions that I make really do have ever-lasting impacts on these families,” Leone said. “I just hope I never lose sight of that.”