On the last day of early voting leading up to Nov. 3, Democrat Jessica Segal voiced that the status quo in Dutchess County Court just wasn’t working anymore. She told voters that her career distinguished her from Republican incumbent Peter Forman. The defense attorney and former Dutchess Senior Assistant District Attorney has now unseated Forman—one of two justices on the county court bench.
Segal’s win is a landmark in the local context. County court judges serve for a decade, and so turnover is slow. But Segal’s win shakes up the county judiciary in a new way. She’s the first Democrat and second woman since 1991 to become a Dutchess County Court Judge.
“This is a historic moment for all of us. I am deeply grateful for your trust, support, time, and never ending faith,” Segal told her supporters in an online statement.
The political newcomer knew she’d entered the race as the underdog. She even predicted her loss in the June primary election against Forman, whose roughly 21-year judicial career stretched four local full-time courts—Family, Supreme, Surrogate and County. Forman clinched the race by 25 votes after a legal battle over 105 ballots.
The marginal loss gave Segal hope. In the November general election, Forman emerged as the front-runner on Election Night, but the race, like many, came down to the deluge of absentee ballots that were counted in the following days. After a week during which the Board of Elections tallied 31,040 absentee and other special ballots, Segal claimed victory Wednesday, Nov. 18 with 51.57 percent of the vote—73,111 votes to Forman’s 68,657—according to unofficial Board of Elections results. Forman conceded the race on Wednesday.
Segal emphasized her compassion, empathy and spotless trial record in her bid for the court. While 93 percent of Forman’s rulings have been affirmed by appellate courts, Segal touted her record as a distinction between her and the incumbent justice. She’s never had a case or trial overturned for error or misconduct in her 20 years as a prosecutor, defense attorney and civil litigator. “It’s traumatizing for the victims and wastes taxpayer money and court resources when cases have to be redone,” she told the Highlands Current.
In an interview with the Miscellany News, Segal also emphasized that sitting with the victims of violent crimes and those charged with crimes during her career showed her how crucial empathy is in law practice. When asked how she’d create a fairer justice system in Dutchess, Segal said she believes firmly in treating people with dignity and respect and contextualizing their case: “What has been their life experience? Has there been limitations in the past that lent themselves to the choices this person made?” Segal asked.
She continued, “Nobody wants a judge who they think will not promote safety in the community. But my view is you can achieve the goal of safety, beyond just sentencing people to incarceration. You can achieve safety by providing tools and resources that help people make good choices in the future.”
Segal could not be reached for a follow-up interview on the election results.
Both Segal and Forman ran on the promise of bringing stability to the bench, albeit for different reasons.
Forman’s slogan for his reelection maintained that the more experienced candidate would ensure continued stability amidst the pandemic: “This has been a challenging year. We can’t afford anymore instability. Not in our daily lives and certainly not in our courts.”
Segal flipped this narrative. The 47-year-old frequently highlighted that between her and Forman, only she could fulfill the full 10-year term. Forman, who is 65 years old, could only serve half the term, as New York State county court judges must retire at age 70.
Still, many voters and county officials backed the judicial veteran. Forman won approval from public officials across the county, including Republican County Executive Marc Molinaro and City of Poughkeepsie Councilmember Yvonne Flowers. He also racked up endorsements from law enforcement associations across the state.
But the campaign trail has also seen its fair share of legal controversy.
Following the lawsuit filed in July concerning the June primary election, Forman filed a lawsuit Nov. 10 to impound absentee ballots and other equipment in the November general election, alleging potential improprieties in the voting and canvassing processes.
Forman turned to courts outside Dutchess County due to concerns that fellow Dutchess judges might have a conflict of interest in reviewing his claims, and could have recused themselves as a result. Orange County Supreme Court threw out the suit, concluding that Forman’s allegations—including that Dutchess judges would have recused themselves—lacked substance. “This is mere speculation and in fact no such evidence of recusal has been submitted or is apparent from the petition or any of the supporting documentation,” said Judge Robert Onofry in his decision.
The week prior, Forman attempted to join another motion filed in Westchester by GOP state Senate candidate Rob Astorino. That motion to impound election material was successful, but Forman’s request to join the case—in which he sought to impound ballots in Dutchess—was not.
Forman’s attorney David Jensen was disappointed by Onofry’s decision, also noting how the controversy behind President Donald Trump’s lawsuits in the presidential election has cast its shadow on local elections. Jensen shared that they didn’t seek to stop votes from being counted. He said that in an election that comes down to absentee ballots, impoundment ensures a smoother process, and that they did not have concerns about the vote-counting system: “It’s not really premised on a violation of law. The intention with an impoundment order is to prevent a violation of law from happening, by simply setting down procedures for how [vote counting is] gonna be carried out,” explained Jensen.
After an 18-month campaign trail, the two candidates seem to have made their peace. “I congratulate Jessica Segal on her election and pledge to make her transition as smooth as possible. She has my whole-hearted support,” Forman wrote in an online statement.
Forman could not be reached for an interview about his plans for the future.
The Dutchess Board of Elections has until Nov. 30 to certify the election results, according to Democratic Commissioner Elizabeth Soto.