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January 2001

The Real
Judge Penny Wolfgang

by Joseph RADDER

The judge’s chambers adjacent to her courtroom in old County Hall are just what you’d expect...dignified, austere, a perfect atmosphere for consultation with attorneys and defendants.

One flight up, however, are her private chambers...offices that reflect the real Penny Wolfgang. Here one immediately notices all the pictures on the wall...family, political associates, famous people and memories of various events in her political and theatrical careers.

Penny Wolfgang grew up in New York City but she has hardly a trace of a New York accent. That’s a good clue to her complete and permanent transition to Western New York.

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As a child in New York City (watering flowers).

A member of a third generation family of New Yorkers, she loved the city as most New Yorkers do. Penny remembers taking the subway to see matinee performances of shows like “Oklahoma” and “Annie Get Your Gun”. She would lunch with her family in Chinatown. Between weekends she’d play with her friends in the neighborhood park.

Love of the theater was discovered when she went to these Broadway shows. She knew early on that she wanted to be an actress.
Penny Moonelis’s first theatrical opportunity came in the 6th grade when she was selected to be the star of a play her class put on in assembly. After that she had parts in every play right through high school. Soon she started taking dramatic lessons at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts on 5th Avenue. Penny continued her theatrical studies in college and during the summer she was a drama counselor at a girl’s camp.

Penny attended Fairleigh Dickinson University where she graduated cum laude. While in her second year at Fairleigh Dickinson she became interested in a law career and joined the Pre-Law Club. Her father was a printer, specializing in briefs and legal papers, so she had some exposure to the law profession while growing up. But it was a very inspiring professor at Fairleigh Dickinson, Dr. Samuel Pleasants, who nurtured her interest in law until it became obvious she was destined to spend her life as a lawyer. While she was at Fairleigh Dickinson she was listed in Who’s Who in American College and University Students. After graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson, Penny was awarded a scholarship to the University of Michigan Law School.

After one year she transferred to NYU to be closer to home. During her senior year of law school she was introduced to Michael G. Wolfgang, an attorney and Assistant District Attorney from Niagara Falls who was practicing law there. They were introduced by a mutual friend while attending a political event. Within a year they were married.

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On the Capitol steps in Washington with husband Michael and daughter Robin.

Moving to Western New York to practice law with Jaeckle Fleischman, Penny Wolfgang continued her theatrical avocation at the Niagara Falls Little Theater where she starred in Pygmalion. She also appeared with Irv Weinstein in “3 Men on a Horse” at the Jewish Center and with the Amherst Players, starring in “Born Yesterday”.

In 1978, after serving as attorney in charge of the Appeals Division of the Buffalo and Erie County Legal Aid Bureau, Penny Wolfgang was elected Judge of the Erie County Court. And after seven years on the County Court bench she was elected Justice of the New York State Supreme Court. In 1999 she was re-elected for a second 14 year term as a Supreme Court Judge.

During her career as an attorney and on the bench, Judge Wolfgang has put her theatrical experience to good use. While a Legal Aid attorney, she produced and moderated The Law and You on WKBW-TV for over 5 years. At the present time she does legal segments on WGRZ-TV’s “Common Ground” program.

When asked about interesting cases that have come before her, Judge Wolfgang recalled the Mixon case in which the defendant was found guilty of burning down the house where his wife and stepchildren perished inside. This is just one of the many “front page” cases to come before Judge Wolfgang in her 15 plus years on the Supreme Court bench.

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Having fun at the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

She has passed on her extensive knowledge of law to the younger generation as a teacher of trial practice at the State University at Buffalo Law School and as a member of the faculty of the Erie County Law Enforcement Training Academy.

Judge Wolfgang’s list of extra-curricular activities is extensive. She is active on two theater boards...Shakespeare in Delaware Park and the Alleyway Theater. She is a member of the Buffalo Council on World Affairs and is on the Erie County Consumer Protection Committee.

She is particularly interested in causes that help children, the Kelly for Kids Foundation, for example. This group, founded by Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, counts the Cradle Beach Camp facility among its many achievements.

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With Jim Kelly.

In spite of all of her judicial and civic work Judge Penny Wolfgang manages to be a family person. Her daughter Robin lives in Washington D.C. where she is a public relations executive and has served as press secretary for two congressmen. Robin grew up in Buffalo and attended Elmwood Franklin School, Nichols School, City Honors School and Emory University in Atlanta. Penny’s mother, now 84, lives in Florida and her sister is a teacher in the New York City area.

Awards on her chamber walls are too numerous to list. One award worthy of note, however, names her as a 1988 recipient of the UB Community-University Awards honoring Outstanding Women.

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Judge Wolfgang with Mayor Masiello.

Judge Wolfgang with County Executive Joel Giambra.

Buffalo/Niagara is fortunate indeed that Penny Moonelis met Michael Wolfgang, a Western New Yorker, and that he persuaded her that Western New York should be their permanent home.

Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.


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