Attorneys’ Qualifications Are More Important Than County Residency

Earlier this week, reporter Dennis Phillips began a story with this question: what is most important quality when hiring an attorney for the District Attorney’s Office — their qualifications or where they live?

The answer is qualifications.

We commend legislator Terry Niebel, R-Fredonia and county Public Safety Committee chairman, for making a good case as to why Chautauqua County’s assistant district attorneys should live within Chautauqua County and pointing out possible shortcomings in the way the positions have been filled in the past when Patrick Swanson, county district attorney, appeared before the committee to ask legislators to pass a resolution supporting an exemption from the state Public Officers Law that mandates assistant district attorneys have residency within the county where they are employed. Swanson asked the legislature to support such an exemption for the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s office, but legislators voted 12-5 against the exemption.

Niebel criticized the process Swanson uses to fill open assistant district attorney positions, saying perhaps Swanson wouldn’t have such a hard time finding assistant district attorneys if the district attorney used more avenues than simply asking bar associations for prospective attorneys. He would rather see attorneys arguing cases on behalf of the county live within Chautauqua County. It makes sense. Attorneys with local knowledge will likely be able to put together cases that resonate with juries made up of Chautauqua County residents.

Swanson, on the other hand, pointed to an aging population of lawyers that has resulted in younger attorneys choosing to open private practices where they can make more money than they can in the county District Attorney’s office. Swanson argues that opening the county District Attorney’s office up to Erie or Cattaraugus county attorneys could allow the county to have more seasoned attorneys prosecuting cases if there are no qualified attorneys living in Chautauqua County.

Such was the case with Michael Flaherty, an assistant district attorney hired in September to be the county’s first district attorney, or third in command. Flaherty lives in Erie County and was hired by Swanson because Flaherty had the experience and qualifications Swanson wanted for the position. There reportedly wasn’t interest from members of the county’s two bar associations. In the eyes of the law, however, an attorney’s quality matters less than where the attorney lives. Judge David Foley ruled Friday that Flaherty is not qualified to serve because he is not a Chautauqua County resident, citing both the state Public Officers Law and state Attorney General opinions.

The district attorney said repeatedly during last week’s Public Safety Committee meeting that he prefers to hire Chautauqua County residents for his open positions and told The Post-Journal on Friday that he wants to hire locally for lower-level assistant district attorney positions. In our view, the District Attorney’s should do all it can to attract county residents to fill these positions, but if there are no qualified county residents then Swanson should be able to hire from outside the county. Swanson said he plans to continue to pursue an exemption from the state to the Public Officers Law — but until then, Flaherty will not be able to argue cases in Chautauqua County Court.

Foley followed the law on Friday. We’re not sure justice is actually being done. Chautauqua County residents should expect to have the best attorneys possible representing them in court, whether they live in Erie County, Cattaraugus County or Chautauqua County.