May 9, 1933 – July 30, 2022
In the three decades that State Supreme Court Justice Joseph D. Mintz served on the bench, his finest moment may have come in 2008, not long before he retired.
It involved a case in which regionalism activist Kevin Gaughan had been challenged in his bid to have voters decide whether to shrink the size of the West Seneca Town Board.
Judge Mintz ruled that the vote should be held. Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde, who was present when the decision was handed down, hailed it as a victory for democracy.
“The judge ruled that the will of the people matters more than the self-preservation instincts of politicians,” Esmonde wrote. “I had never before seen the lean, gray-haired Mintz in action. But he impressed me as a guy who, unlike some of his berobed brethren, keeps politics out of the courtroom. He was fair, he was firm, he was folksy – at one point wryly doubting that a long-winded lawyer could keep his promise of brevity. If they filmed this thing 50 years ago, Spencer Tracy would have played the part.”
He died Saturday at the home of his eldest daughter in Cherry Hill, N.J., after a period of declining health. He was 89.
In an interview with Matt Chandler of Buffalo Business First prior to stepping down in 2009, he remarked, “I never even thought I would be a judge, never thought I could be elected, never even thought I would run.”
Nevertheless, he was invited by the Erie County Republican chairman to run against incumbent District Attorney Edward Cosgrove in 1977. He lost badly, but when five State Supreme Court seats came up for election the following year, he got one of the nominations and won.
One of his first cases was the murder trial of Gail Trait, a single mother who stabbed her four children to death and pleaded insanity. It was front page news every day.
“That was my baptism under fire,” he told Buffalo Business First.
In later cases, he approved the sale of some of the Love Canal homes in Niagara Falls, issued a stay on Erie County’s attempt to impose item pricing in supermarkets, upheld New York State’s Berger Commission recommendation to close the former St. Joseph Hospital in Cheektowaga and ordered the Buffalo Police Department to hold an unprecedented public disciplinary hearing for Officer Cariol Horne, who had intervened to stop another officer applying a choke hold during an arrest.
In a letter to The News, he also noted that he presided over the majority of the medical malpractice cases in Erie County.
“Lawyers talk about judicial temperament, and I really think some people have it and some people don’t,” he told Buffalo Business First in 2009. “I think I am fortunate enough to have that judicial temperament. … Basically, if you can keep an objective view of things, that goes a long way in being able to maintain your compass.”
Born in Buffalo, Joseph David Mintz was the oldest of three children and was a 1951 graduate of Bennett High School. He earned his undergraduate degree and his juris doctor degree in five years at the University of Buffalo, where he was on the staff of the law review.
He was an attorney for Legal Aid of Buffalo for two years before founding the Aid to Indigent Prisoners Society of Erie County in 1958. It became the model for similar programs throughout the state and across the nation. He served as its administrator for 20 years.
He also maintained a private practice as a criminal defense lawyer and did corporate work. He was secretary of the board of directors of Armor Heating Co. and president of the board of directors of Lake Erie Steel Erection Co.
He served as a judge until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 76, then continued to do court-appointed work until a few months ago.
He received the Distinguished Alumni Award from UB Law School in 1997.
He was a past president of the New York State Defender Association and former treasurer of the Trail Lawyers Association of Erie County.
An enthusiastic poker player and later a gin rummy player with friends, during his retirement years he coordinated a card club of 18 men. They rented office space and played gin rummy there, sometimes on a daily basis.
He and the former Renee C. Kahn met at Sherkston Quarry in the early 1950s and they were married in 1956.
They enjoyed dining out, travel with friends, fishing trips to Canada and visits to casinos throughout the Caribbean. He also savored an end-of-the-day glass of vodka on the rocks and a daily cigar until his wife made him quit.
Survivors include two daughters, Sari Mintz and Laurie Mintz; a sister, Esther Perry; and four grandchildren. His wife died in 2018.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday in Mesnekoff Funeral Home, 8630 Transit Road, East Amherst. It also will be livestreamed at mesnekoff.com.