Judged unfit for re-election

Lawyers, in a Bar Association survey, said City Court Judge Diane Wray is unqualified for the job. But she's got the Democratic Party endorsement anyway. Could her husband's campaign contributions have anything to do with it?
News and analysis by Geoff Kelly, Investigative Post's political reporter

The Bar Association of Erie County rated Diane Wray a poor choice for a Buffalo City Court judgeship when she first ran in 2011. Its members rated her “not recommended,” the lowest score they can give.

She won anyway. 

A decade later, local attorneys haven’t changed their opinion. 

Two weeks ago, the Bar Association’s members rated Wray “not recommended” for reelection. It’s the only time in the past 10 years the Bar has advised voters not to return an incumbent judge to the bench.

The Bar Association does not comment on its judicial ratings, which are made by a bipartisan committee. But Investigative Post spoke with a half-dozen attorneys with experience in Wray’s court to ascertain why they considered her ill-suited for her position. 

All spoke on condition of anonymity — some because of the Bar Association’s strict confidentiality policy, others because Wray is likely to win her June 22 Democratic primary and be reelected to a second 10-year term in the November general election. The consensus was Wray displayed a poor grasp of criminal law and procedure, and a decade of on-the-job training had not improved her understanding. 

“Wholly incompetent” on criminal matters, one attorney told Investigative Post, noting that criminal cases comprised “probably 90 percent” of her workload.

Another said Wray’s private practice experience might have qualified her to adjudicate housing issues, but only one of the court’s 12 judges handles those — and it’s not Wray.

When attorneys question her, “she gets combative,” said one lawyer. Another described her as “cranky,” and still another as “abrasive.”

Wray did not respond to a request for an interview.

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Personality counts in the Bar Association’s ratings, which one attorney — who considers Wray a poor judge — described as a “popularity contest.” Some judges can make bad decisions, misinterpret the law, or otherwise perform poorly and still be endorsed by the Bar Association membership for reelection, the attorney told Investigative Post, because “They’re pleasant. Lawyers like them.”

Another attorney countered that characterization, saying the ratings tended to be objective because they were anonymous and arose from a survey of working attorneys, rather than through a top-down political process.

In any case, Wray’s conduct in one case observed by a Investigative Post reporter raised questions of temperament and reasonableness.

Anson Whitted went before Wray in January 2019 for falling more than $5,000 behind in child support payments. Wray said she would not settle his case with a plea unless he also got his suspended license reinstated.

On the stand, Whitted said he couldn’t afford to make the payments necessary to get a license. Wray told him that she could give him a sentence of 15 days in jail right then, on the spot.

Whitted said he had custody of his son that day. So Wray told him he’d have to come back to court again in a few weeks.

“Come with your toothbrush,” Wray said, implying he’d need one in jail.

“I can’t afford a license, ma’am,” Whitted responded. “I don’t have thousands of dollars.”

In the end, Wray let him off with a fine, which he borrowed money to pay. By that time it had been almost a year since he’d first appeared in Wray’s court and four months since he’d pled guilty.

“I actually got kind of nervous, I thought she was going to put me in jail,” Whitted told Investigative Post outside the courtroom.

By “staying on you,” Wray thinks she’s helping you, Whitted said, “but it’s taking people from their job and [she] ain’t paying that no mind.”

Every attorney who spoke to Investigative Post characterized Wray’s fixation on defendants reinstating driver’s licenses as bordering on obsessive — even if prosecuting attorneys don’t insist on that as a condition of a plea. 

In a city that uses vehicle and traffic violations as a revenue generator, it’s not uncommon for a defendant to rack up a laundry list of unpaid tickets, leading to a suspended license.

As a result, Wray’s docket is clogged with defendants summoned back to court again and again, several lawyers said, unable to meet her demands.

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In 2011, Wray ran in a crowded field of candidates seeking to fill four open spots on the court. A Democrat, she ran without the endorsement of her party and finished third in the primary, then fourth in the general election, beating out incumbent David Manz. 

This year, there are four Democrats, including Wray, vying for three spots. Three of the four are endorsed by the party: Phillip Dabney, Jr., who was appointed by Mayor Byron Brown to fill a vacancy on the court last year and who is running to keep that seat; Rebecca Town, a Legal Aid attorney; and Wray.

The Bar Association rated Town and Dabney as “qualified.” It rated the other candidate, attorney Joseph Jarzembek, as “not recommended.” 

Considering her unpopularity among those who work City Court, Wray’s endorsement by the Democratic Party surprised some of the attorneys who spoke to Investigative Post. Some found it par for the course. 

“You have to do something pretty bad” not to be endorsed for reelection, one lawyer said. And another noted that well placed donations to the party and its candidates can cover a multitude of sins.

As a sitting judge, Wray is prohibited from donating to political campaigns. Her husband, attorney Michael Hughes, is not. 

In the past year and a half, Hughes has donated $11,300 to the Erie County Democratic Committee, $2,500 to Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner’s committee, and $3,700 to party-endorsed Democrats running for other offices, including Mayor Byron Brown. He also chipped in $500 to the Amherst Democratic Committee.

Wray’s pay last year was $191,583, according to SeeThroughNY’s payroll records.