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September 2003

Judge Joseph Mattina -
What a Fascinating Life

by Joseph H. RADDER

One of the first things the visitor notices in Judge Joseph S. Mattina’s chambers in old County Hall is a huge picture of him in a blue Wal-Mart jumper, assuming the pose of a store greeter. He must retire from the bench this year, but really doesn’t want to. “I love this job,” he says. He has talked about it so much his staff decided to have some fun with the idea and suggested he might go to work at Wal-Mart after he retires. The result was this picture.

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The BEST is yet to come...
Welcome to Wal-Mart!

Indeed it will be difficult for him to stay as busy as he has been as Surrogate Court judge, a community leader, and a consummate family man. Judge Mattina is just turning seventy. Up to now he’s had a fascinating life and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be just as fascinating after he retires. For example, he has written a book and will now have time to actively pursue its publication.

He has been a judge for thirty-nine years, first a City Court Judge, a County Court Judge, a Supreme Court Judge, and for the past twenty-one and a half years, a judge of the Surrogate Court.

This has been, perhaps, the most interesting part of his entire thirty-nine year career. Surrogate Court handles three types of cases - trusts and estates, guardianships, and adoptions.

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Joseph's maternal grandparents. Joseph Mattina at age 6.
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Joseph and his dad Vincenzo - 1956. Joseph and his sister Mary - 1956.
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Joseph Mattina, left, as a DJ. Jospeh Mattina, left,  was editor of the Freshman Handbook at U.B.

He has a great story to tell in each category:

The first was about an estate he handled for the family of a local bootblack. This man was a “fixture” in one of the local hotels. For many years, hundreds of downtown business people patronized his shoe shine stand, and they often tipped him well because they sensed that he needed the money. As it turned out, he left a “very large” estate in the high six figures, an awful lot of money in 1982. Mr. X died without a will, so the Surrogate Court had to try to find his closest relatives. They found three first cousins, living as sharecroppers in Alabama. “We brought these men up here and quickly found that they were the only relatives of the deceased,” said the Judge. After taxes, they would share more money than they had ever dreamed about. Even though they were still wearing their overalls, they wanted to buy three big black Cadillac Fleetwoods to drive back to Alabama. Well, Judge Mattina made an appointment for them at the local Cadillac dealer who, as soon as he saw these three men in overalls, called the Judge in disbelief. Judge Mattina soon set the dealer straight and reassured him that these men were prepared to pay “cash on the barrelhead” for these cars.

“I tell that story,” Judge Mattina said, “to ask people, why do you let the government decide? Do you want to give (your money) to the church, the Cancer Society, the neighbor who has been good to you? Then make out a will!”

He’s not a big fan of living trusts. Citing a recent article in the Buffalo News which said “the horrors of probate don’t exist”. Judge Mattina agrees, saying, “When we’re told to get living trusts, we’re being conned. Living trusts are important to the multi-millionaire, but not the average guy.” 

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Judge Joseph, Jackie, Barbara, Dylan and Todd - 1965. Father Vincenzo, Joseph and Mother Carmela Mattina.
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City court with family - 1967.

In the area of guardianships, the court administers over $100 million of disabled persons’ money, the result of insurance settlements, malpractice cases etc. As the grandparent of an autistic child Mattina knows how difficult it is to raise a disabled child, so his goal, as Surrogate Judge, is to “raise the quality of life for the parents and all of the siblings. We build houses for them. We have nurses come in. If the kids want to go to Disneyland, we arrange that. In one case, a child who had been awarded $3 million, had only a few years to live, and clearly wanted and much loved by both parents. Unfortunately, the parents went through a divorce. So Judge Mattina’s Surrogate Court ordered the building of two adjoining houses in the suburbs so each parent could have the child so many days a week. “ It has worked beautifully,” he said. One doesn’t often associate the word creativity with our court system, but this certainly was a creative solution to a difficult situation.

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Each week's highlight day - worldwide adoptions.

Judge Mattina explained his work in the third area, adoptions, by telling us, “we do about 100 local adoptions each year, where the parent is often a single girl, very young, and unable to care for the child herself. The second area is in foreign adoptions. We do about 300 of those. Korea was our biggest (source of children), but now that the economy is so good in Korea we don’t get any Korean children, but we get hundreds of Russian children.” On the wall of his chambers is a bulletin board about eight feet long jam-packed with photos of children from foreign lands adopted by local parents. “That’s just one year!” he says proudly. “We have twenty-one of those boards.” Proving that the community appreciates the work Judge Mattina has done in the adoption area, he has received the highest awards from the three major adoption agencies in the area, the Lutheran Service Society, Son Ray Ministries, and Baker Victory. The third area of adoptions is the most difficult and often very sad. “That is what we call the re-marriage adoption.” This occurs when one or both of the members of a divorced couple re-marries. The mother, who more often than not has custody, asks her new husband to adopt her children. In these cases the separated biological parent must be cited. But they’re often disinterested. “I’ve had six thousand re-marriage adoptions in twenty-one and a half years.” He then amazes the visitor by telling him of all of these, only ten of these fathers have shown up in court. Apparently they’d rather abandon their kids than take any responsibility for their support.

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Joseph's daughter Jackie is a lawyer and Commissioner of Crime Victims in New York. Son Todd, master carpenter, and his children. Jospeh's son Dylan is an instructor at ECC.

While a Judge of the Supreme Court, Joseph Mattina tried an Attica inmate, Shango Bahati Kakawanna for his role in the 1971 Attica Prison uprising. Hollywood made a film of this trial, starring Alan Alda and Morris Chestnut. Tony Nardi played the part of Judge Mattina. It was to be released at a New York City premiere on September 11, 2001. Mattina and his wife, Barbara, who had come to New York for the premiere, were at their hotel just thirty blocks away from the World Trade Center when the twin towers were destroyed by terrorists. Because of the disaster, the film, called “The Killing Yard”, was never released in theaters but does run on the movie channels frequently, and is available on VTR.

Joseph S. Mattina went to elementary school #19 in Buffalo. “I flunked kindergarten,” he says, “because I couldn’t speak English until I was seven. Although born in the United States, nobody in Mattina’s family spoke English at the time, so his only childhood language was Italian. As a result he was placed in a class for “slow” children. Finally, in third grade, a wonderful teacher by the name of Ruth Cohn decided he was not retarded. “She rescued me,” he remembers. Judge Mattina attended Ms. Cohn’s funeral just last year.

His high school years found him at Lafayette. While there, four students were selected to “become” Clint Buehlman, the popular morning disc jockey. Doug Turner, former executive editor of the Courier-Express, and now chief of the Buffalo News Washington Bureau, won the contest with Joe Mattina coming in second. As it turned out Turner got sick and was unable to complete his stint on the air, so Mattina filled in for him. As a result of this experience he got a job at WGR as a junior disc jockey with Billy Keaton. He was also Bill Mazer’s color man at the Buffalo Bison baseball games. He recalls one game when a fight broke out, Bill Mazer jumped up and went flying out of the press box, losing consciousness. “I had to do the rest of the game,” Mattina remembers, “and it was a great thrill.”

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District Attorney's Office - 1963. Judge Mattina with his Supreme Court aide Donald Kelly.
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Surrogate Court with Judge Martoche and his family. The founding members of the William Paca Society...the only Italian-American anti-defamation group in WNY.

Graduating from Lafayette in 1950, he went to the University of Buffalo, moving up to the UB Law School in 1953. In high school, Joseph Mattina was refused membership in a fraternity because he was Italian and Catholic. Other classmates of foreign extraction were suffering the same discrimination. “So I got together with a couple of Irish kids, a couple of Jewish kids, and some other Italian kids and we formed our own fraternity, which existed for twenty-five years.

Joseph S. Mattina took the bar exams in 1957 and passed the first time. His first big job was in the district attorney’s office where he achieved thirty-six straight convictions during five years of service. He was the first Italian-American attorney to indict Mafia characters and members of organized crime fringe groups.

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Affirmative action with associates.

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Mediator of Affirmative Action appointed by Governor Rockefeller.

He then practiced law for about a year and a half before he became a City Court Judge.

One needs to talk to Judge Mattina for only a few minutes to know that he is a consummate family man. He remembers his parents lovingly. “My father, Vincenzo, came over from Italy in 1920 by himself.” His mother, Carmelo, had been married in Sicily, and after she lost her first husband, Vincenzo Mattina, who had by then established a successful shoe repair business in Buffalo, asked her to come to America and marry him. A few years later, on St. Joseph’s Day in 1933, their first child was born. Of course, his name would be Joseph. They had one other child, Joseph’s younger sister, who died about ten years ago.

In 1956, after graduating from law school, Mattina married Barbara Susse. They have three adult children, Jackie, 42, is a lawyer and Commissioner of Crime Victims in the State of New York. Dylan, 39, is an instructor at Erie Community College, and Todd, 37, is a carpenter. The Mattinas are grateful that their three children have given them ten grandchildren.

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Judge Mattina's staff. Judge Mattina's right hand Bernadette.

Space doesn’t permit listing all of his many awards, but we should note that he was selected by TIME magazine in 1974 as one of the “200 leading young citizens of the United States.” This led to his being invited to dinner by Frank Sinatra while the Mattinas were on a trip to Nevada. As it turned out, Judge and Mrs. Mattina became Sinatra’s lifelong friends. He would entertain them whenever he came to Buffalo. And the Judge gratefully remembers, “When my sister was dying of cancer, (Sinatra) treated her like the Queen of Sheba.”

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Good friend Frank Sinatra. Joseph Mattina and Pope John Paul II.
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Judge Mattina visited Italy with his son Dylan who created this collage that reads: "Dad, I will never forget our trip to Italy - Happy Father's Day, Love, Dylan."

There are so many more things in his biographical sketch, his published articles, his service as Mediator of the Affirmative Action program under Governor Rockefeller, his numerous awards, and his tremendous accomplishments on the bench, it would take many more pages to do them justice.

Suffice it to say, Judge Joseph Mattina has been one of Buffalo’s most valuable citizens for many years. We wish him well in retirement.

Joseph H. Radder, a free-lance writer and regular contributor to Living Prime Time, is the author of a new book, a fictional biography of a young Jew named Jesus, “Young Jesus, the missing years.”


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