As an up and coming female prosecutor, Jessica Segal knew she had to be the most prepared person in the room. Now, after 20 years as a prosecutor, civil litigator and defense attorney, the 47-year-old Democrat is running for Dutchess County Court Judge. Segal would be the second woman in history to hold the position. Only two justices sit on the county bench.
Segal’s win would be historic, but she says her gender should not be the only factor driving your vote for her: “We need someone who represents the people in Dutchess County beyond just the male perspective. I’m not suggesting people vote for me because I’m a woman, but I have the background and experience. I already have the skill.”
The former Senior Assistant District Attorney is up against 20-year judicial veteran and incumbent Republican Peter Forman. Forman has won endorsements from Republican County Executive Marc Molinaro, City of Poughkeepsie Councilmember Yvonne Flowers and several police associations. After 10 years on the county bench and years of judicial experience, many are comfortable with seeing him continue. Forman appeals to this desire for stability amid the pandemic in a recent campaign ad: “You have a lot on your plate right now. The last thing you need is to worry about your county court judge.”
Dutchess residents have seen Forman preside over Family Treatment Court and Juvenile Treatment Court. They’ve also watched him divert non-violent offenders struggling with substance abuse away from incarceration and into treatment and monitoring programs.
But Forman is also 65 years old. New York County Court judges must retire at the end of the calendar year they turn 70. If Forman wins, the county would later have to host an election to fill his place.
Though her competition is tough, Segal offers experience many don’t bring as a first time judicial candidate. The Pace Law School grad got her start while interning with the Dutchess County District Attorney’s (DA) Appeals Bureau. There she reviewed appeals from convicted defendants. The DA’s office offered her a job upon graduation. “Prosecutors don’t often have that much turnover in Dutchess County,” she said. “They stay for a long time because there’s good benefits. So I took the job and stayed there for 17 years.”
She first spent three years researching and writing appellate briefs in the Appeals Bureau, learning every mistake attorneys and judges can make over the course of a trial. She then moved to the Trials Bureau for 14 years as a prosecutor. There she revamped her love of animals from her days on the Pace Environmental Law Review. “My niche was vehicular homicide cases and animal cruelty,” she said. “I found that my passion for animal protection came in the form of prosecuting abused and neglected animal cases.”
Segal said she’d seen people at their lowest over those 14 years. Sitting with victims of violent crimes showed her how crucial empathy is in law practice.
“There’s a real human connection to bearing witness to someone’s most tragic day of their life,” she said. “I found it very rewarding to help people through that traumatic process, and to be a voice for them when they couldn’t find the right words.”
Segal later struck into civil litigation and criminal defense in 2017. Now on the other side as a defense attorney, she’s seen first hand the shame carried by those convicted of a crime. While talking through defendants’ childhood traumas, exposure to violence and substance addictions, Segal emphasizes that conviction or arrest doesn’t define them. “I’ve never approached my career as either a prosecutor or a defense attorney from a place of judgment…It’s just, how can we make the situation better?”
When asked why she’s running for County Judge now, Segal said she wants to bring empathy to the bench: “I saw a lack of regard for treating people with fairness and dignity. [People] were just a number, every case was just a number to push through the system.”
Besides her experience and values, Segal touts what she sees as a major track record difference between her and her opponent: She’s never had a case overturned for error or misconduct.
Forman has had roughly five cases overturned between 2014 and 2020. In People v. Wright, Forman allowed the prosecutor to present evidence and argue that, because defendant Raymond Wright had committed burglary before, he had a propensity for this crime. The State Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled that “the prejudice to the defendant was so great here that it deprived him of the right to a fair trial.” Wright was given a retrial.
In People v. Lambey, an undercover police officer and confidential informant signed affidavits saying that defendant Darnell Lambey was selling drugs and possessed a handgun. Forman denied the defendant a hearing on the warrant’s validity. He also denied Lambey’s attorney copies of the warrant. Lambey’s appeal for a hearing and the paperwork was granted.
Defendant Masao Yonamine challenged Forman’s sentencing as excessive in Yonamine v. Forman, with the state Appellate Division agreeing and reducing the sentence.
Forman had two previous decisions upheld in January, despite errors in the proceedings. In People v. Leddy, Forman failed to inform defendant John Leddy that the waiver he signed as part of his plea deal would waive his right to appeal the sentencing.
Despite these missteps, Segal projected her opponent’s judicial seniority and name recognition would win him the June 23 Independence party primary. Only registered Independence Party voters can participate in this election. As Forman, Segal and two elections commissioners processed votes, the incumbent contested many voters’ absentee ballots—a total of 105.
Segal claims that Forman used his familiarity with those who’d voted for him in the past to distinguish those he didn’t know or thought had voted for Segal. She said Forman challenged ballots he believed belonged to the latter group, and contested errors or irregularities with their ballots.
Forman released a statement on July 10 explaining the reasoning for the litigation that followed. “Due to some irregularities with ballots and voting machines, and the conduct of some poll site workers, I have filed a lawsuit in order to uphold the integrity of the election and ensure that every properly-cast vote is counted,” wrote Forman.
According to case documents, Forman also challenged Governor Andrew Cuomo’s power to authorize that these absentee ballots be counted as unconstitutional. In turn, he argued that all ballots cast were invalid.
Cuomo signed an executive order prior to New York’s June 23 primaries giving all New York voters the ability to request an absentee ballot amid the pandemic and community spread. He later signed an order sending postage-paid absentee ballot applications to all registered New York voters.
Forman attorney called in New York City graphologist Roger Rubin to analyze the signatures on the absentee ballots and voter registration cards. Rubin is not certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners. Judge Paul Marx allowed Rubin to give opinion testimony rather than forensic handwriting analysis. Rubin asserted that signatures did not match “to his specially trained eye,” and repeatedly changed his observations. Marx rejected this testimony.
Segal attempted to contact the people whose votes hung in limbo. Some testified the validity of their ballots either in court or through affidavits.
By the end of the suit, Marx denied Forman’s request for a new election and his charge that Cuomo’s executive order was unconstitutional. With some ballots not opened, Forman won by 25 votes—601 to Segal’s 576. The newcomer knew he would win, but she prided herself on doing the right thing.
“When I saw this attempt at voter suppression happening, I knew I had to fight for every voter to be heard, regardless of whether they voted for me or not,” she said soon after the final vote on Aug. 14. “It was the right thing to do and that’s the kind of judge I’ll be.”
With election day almost a month away and a marginal primary loss between her and Forman, Segal is hopeful. After all, both she and the incumbent were rated “Highly Qualified” by the Dutchess County Bar Association.
She also shared that her campaign took on new meaning after the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Segal, a single mother to teenagers, knows that she would not have the ability to run for office had it not been for Ginsburg’s trailblazing work. “[Her legacy] motivates me more to run because I want my children, grandchildren and young girls in the community to see that a woman can be a county court judge and that you can make a difference while raising a family.”
Segal also emphasized the need for greater representation of historically underrepresented people in the legal field. “I think it’s important that there be fair representation in the courtroom of everyone…we need people of color and more women in judge positions across the state.”
Even if the election doesn’t swing in her favor on Nov. 3, Segal said that her campaign is bigger than the win or loss. “For me it wasn’t really about if I’d win, it was that I wanted to try and be in the arena. I wanted to show my kids that if you have a dream, try and work as hard as you can.”