CANANDAIGUA — The North Court Room at the Ontario County Courthouse is the site of one of the pivotal moments in the nation’s suffragist movement.
It was there that one of the leaders of the cause, Susan B. Anthony, was tried in 1873 for breaking the law by voting in the 1872 presidential election. A bronze bust of Anthony sits outside the courtroom to commemorate the trial, where she was found guilty.
On Saturday, a little more history will be made there.
Kitty Karle will be sworn in as the first female Ontario County Court judge.
“It is incredible to make history,” said Karle, who picked the North Courtroom for her swearing-in to pay homage to the sacrifices of Anthony and countless other suffragists hoping to gain voting rights for women.
Women will play a prominent role in Saturday’s swearing-in. Joan O’Byrne, 82, who has been practicing law for decades, will do the honors.
“She’s been my mentor and now a very dear friend,” said Karle, a native of Honeoye who was elected to the seat in November. “She paved the way for me to be who I am today.”
O’Byrne, Karle noted, was the only female law student at the University of California at Berkley decades ago, reflecting how much has changed in the profession.
Karle’s best friend from the University at Buffalo, Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek, will deliver the keynote address, while state Supreme Court Justice Craig Doran, who also serves as the administrative judge of the Seventh Judicial District, will provide opening remarks.
Doran said he’s honored to be included.
“It’s certainly a great day when we can witness history, and that’s what we will do,” he said. “I’m just proud to be a part of it.”
Doran said there is a need for more diversity in not only the courts, but in public offices overall.
“I think it’s very important that those public offices are a reflection of the community,” he said. “I’d be hard-pressed to speak as to why, up to this point, a woman has not successfully run for (Ontario) County Court.”
Karle notes that the ranks of lawyers are generally split about 50-50 between men and women but that females are just starting to break through into the court ranks.
Doran said Karle’s election “sends a strong message that anyone can reach for the office and that we no longer have these ceilings.”
However, Karle admits the position she will take in January is not one she had set her sights on while studying law at UB.
“I didn’t aspire and dream to be a judge,” she said, explaining she wanted to be a prosecutor.
She did that, distinguishing herself in the Monroe County District Attorney’s office, where one of her main roles was prosecuting child-abuse and other special-victims cases.
However, she lost the job over politics, she said.
Karle, a Republican, said DA Sandra Doorley rid the office of many prosecutors who were not Democrats, including her. The irony, she noted, is that Doorley eventually switched parties.
Karle called losing the prosecutor job “the lowest point of my life.”
She has a different take now.
“If it wasn’t for that, I probably wouldn’t be here (ready to become a judge),” she said.
In between that time and her impending judgeship, Karle worked as a defense attorney, which she believes, along with her extensive prosecutorial background, “truly prepared me for the bench.”
She came close to being Ontario County’s top prosecutor in 2017, when she sought the Ontario County district attorney’s job, which was opening up with the retirement of R. Michael Tantillo. She lost in the Republican primary, however, to Jim Ritts would go on to win the seat.
However, in 2018, opportunity knocked again. Judge William Kocher was retiring, and Karle was urged by many county Republicans and friends to run for the seat.
She did so, defeating Russ Kenyon in the September Republican primary. The Democrats didn’t have a candidate on the ballot, so Karle was assured a win in November.
Ready to put on the robe
Now it’s on to the job. Karle, 48, said she has a week of training in January and is scheduled to be on the bench later in the month.
She said she has thought often about the responsibilities that come with her new job.
“It’s a daunting task,” she said. “Every day you’re making decisions that impacts people’s lives. I do not take that lightly.”
Doran said the job “can be very lonely at times because the buck stops with you.”
However, he thinks Karle is up to the task.
“She is an extremely talented attorney, extremely knowledgeable of the law,” he said.
Doran noted Karle’s work as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, and believes that experience works to her advantage when it comes to dealing with those that come before her.
“I’m confident that her adjustment (to the job) will be seamless,” he said.