There’s only one probate judge race in Connecticut this election cycle but it’s shaping up to be a good one between a successful talk-radio host and a well-known divorce attorney.
And neither is too shy about pointing out the other’s perceived flaws.
Lisa Wexler, despite a nearly 30-year legal career, may be best known for her daily talk-radio show on WFAS-AM, a Westchester County, N.Y., station with many Connecticut listeners. She is the Republican candidate.
Kieran Costello, of Costello & McCormack in Fairfield, is the Democrat in the race. His practice focuses primarily on matrimonial and probate matters.
The two candidates are squaring off in a year with no other probate races because Kevin O’Grady, the current probate judge for the Westport and Weston district, forced to step down for health reasons. O’Grady, a Democrat who has served as the district’s probate judge since 1999, has been on a medical leave of absence for the past two years.
“I am afraid my health has continued to deteriorate, and it would now appear that I will not be able to return to my post,” O’Grady said in an April letter to state Probate Court Administrator Paul Knierim.
The winner of next month’s election will fill the remaining year left in O’Grady’s term and must run again in November 2014 for a full, four-year term to stay in the post. Both Costello and Wexler have indicated they would seek a full term if successful next month.
Costello has practiced law for the past 21 years and has been an adjunct professor for the past 19 years at Housatonic Community College.
During the campaign, Costello has stressed his community roots. He said he has been devoted to providing free legal assistance to seniors, women and children, and has expressed pride in his volunteer work at Fairfield Community Services, the Domestic Violence Crisis Center of Stamford/Norwalk, and at the YWCA of Greenwich. He also has served as a member of the board of directors at the Center for Women and Families in Bridgeport, where he also continues to volunteer. And he is an active in the Connecticut Bar Association.
A point of debate has been Wexler’s commitment to the state’s legal community. Costello initially contended that Wexler wasn’t a member of the Connecticut Bar Association, but she has since proven otherwise. But Costello hasn’t backed away from making Wexler’s experience an issue.
“I’ve actively practiced law for 21 years, in the office and court 10 hours a day. That sets me apart from my opponent, who’s been a radio talk-show host,” said Costello. “I have cases pending in all of the local probate courts and hundreds of cases pending in Superior Court as evidenced under the Judicial Branch website. My opponent has none. It seems to me to be sort of a basic prerequisite to have a law practice and the skills that come with that practice before you can sit as probate judge.”
Wexler takes umbrage with Costello trying to portray her as a talk-radio host who isn’t practicing law. She is admitted to the New York and Connecticut bars, and has practiced for nearly 30 years in real estate, trusts, wills and probate. In 1989, she moved to Westport and started her own practice after working at a firm in New York City.
While Wexler often addresses legal matters on her show, she also discusses local, national, and international news, as well as entertainment and culture.
“I got into radio in ’06-’07 once a week on Saturday morning,” said Wexler. “In 2011, [the radio show] went to daily. Just because I’m better known as a radio host does not diminish my extensive experience as an attorney, which is first and foremost what I’ve always been.”
Wexler also said she resents Costello’s comments regarding her lack of cases listed on the Judicial Branch website.
“My opponent is a divorce lawyer. He has a motion practice and cases on the Judicial Branch site,” said Wexler. “He knows or should know that the evidence of someone practicing in the field of trusts and estates would never be indicated or evidenced by cases because we are not litigators. If you have a thousand estate plans, closings, they won’t be on the Judicial Branch website.”
Wexler said she did not plan to take on any new private practice clients if elected probate judge, even though the post is not a full-time position. Probate judges are the only state judges allowed to practice on the side, though some members of the judiciary believe it is a conflict of interest.
“My opponent stands to make a lot of money from becoming probate judge,” Wexler said, noting that a large billboard in the district advertising Costello’s firm was replaced with an ad for his campaign. Costello, she said, will “use the prestigious position of judge to attract new clients to his firm. I’ve practiced law for 30 years and now I want to be a judge. My opponent wants both.”
Costello told the Law Tribune he planned to continue with his private law if elected probate judge.
“I’m fortunate enough to have a successful practice to break away and devote the time necessary for the court’s business,” he said. “I recognize that every probate judge in Fairfield County has a law practice and is the judge of their respective district. My focus is going to be on the court’s business. I’m confident that I can handle both responsibilities.”•