Two Niagara University Graduates Serve on the Highest Trial Court in New York State
On Nov. 21, 2021, two individuals were elected to serve on the New York State Supreme Court in the seventh judicial district. Both were Niagara University graduates: Jim Walsh, B.S.’88, and Elena Iacovangelo Cariola, B.A.’97.
Jim Walsh, B.S.’88
If high school yearbook messages are predictors of future careers, Jim Walsh, B.S.’88, was destined for law. The notes his classmates wrote spoke to the qualities he had that would make him a great attorney, even if he didn’t recognize his own potential at the time.
His journey from a self-described kid who felt he wouldn’t make anything of his life, to a judge serving on the highest trial court in New York state, was largely due to his Niagara experience, he said.
Growing up with his sister in Central Islip, N.Y., Jim readily admits his life could have taken a different turn. He had few role models in his family inspiring him to go to college, but once he got a pamphlet from Niagara University and visited the campus, he said he “fell in love” with the university and its people, and knew it was where he wanted to be.
He enrolled as a criminal justice major with the intent of pursuing a career in law enforcement, but shifted his focus to practicing law with the encouragement of professors including Dr. Jay Albanese, Dr. John Stranges, and the Rev. Michael Tumulty, C.M. During his four years on Monteagle Ridge, he was prepared academically for the rigors of law school and developed a foundation of humility and compassion, he said. He also met his wife of 32 years, Jean Yurgealitis Walsh, BSN’88.
“Niagara was a wonderful experience,” Jim said. “It really opened up a world to me that I never thought I could envision. Spiritually and intellectually, it was an unbelievable place to learn and to grow. It truly made me a man. It’s a fantastic university, and I enjoyed my four years there immensely.”
After graduation, Jim and Jean lived in Buffalo for a few years before moving to Michigan, where Jim pursed his J.D. at Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Because they had a young daughter, Erin (who would become a member of NU’s Class of 2014), Jean worked nights so Jim could attend classes during the day. After Jim earned his degree in 1996, the family (which now included a second daughter, Shannon) moved to Rochester, N.Y., where they made their home and Jim progressed in his career in positions with the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office before opening his own practice.
In November 2013, Jim was elected to Monroe County Family Court, and in January 2016, he was named acting Supreme Court justice. His experience in presiding over thousands of cases prepared him for the newest role in his impressive career, when he was elected in November 2021 as a Supreme Court justice in New York state’s seventh judicial district.
Helping others is at the heart of what Jim does. Throughout his career, he has prosecuted everything from traffic tickets to major felonies, and defended people who were dealing with a variety of issues, including addiction and mental health disorders. Family Court enabled him to focus on helping families and children.
“Families come to Family Court because their lives are broken,” he said. “I try to help them get back on their feet. I hold people to a high standard and to the consequences of not doing what the court orders, but at the same time, I think it’s more of a compassionate court and a very helpful court. I think as a judge, you really can have an impact—a very profound, very important impact on people’s lives.”
Jim said that he conducts his court with empathy and a true desire to help those who appear before him, especially children. “I’m a big believer in children’s rights and making sure the children are protected,” he said.
Often, the children he served both in private practice and through his role as a judge visit him to let him know how they are doing. He recalls a young heroin addict who dropped out of college and was sentenced to drug court. Through his involvement, she got her life back on track, went back to college, and earned her degree. One year at Christmas, she came to his house to give him a painting of a bright flower in the middle of a black forest, which she said represented how, with his help, she was able to bloom in the midst of a dark time.
“You have to hold people accountable, and they have to suffer the consequences for their actions and their behaviors,” Jim said, “but for the most part, I think people are good and you can find that goodness and work with them and help them to really achieve what they want to achieve in life. That is the most rewarding to me.”
Now, as a Supreme Court justice, Jim will continue to help people as he presides over the highest trial court in New York state with a purview that encompasses not only Monroe County, but Cayuga, Livingston, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, and Yates counties, as well.
Again and again, Jim credits his Niagara experience with giving him a belief system that has been the basis of his career.
“You go to Niagara and you learn that it’s very important to support folks that are having a difficult time,” he said. “I’m in a position now where I can help people. I always go out of my way to do it, and I think that’s in large part because of the foundation that I got at Niagara.”
Niagara’s influence also helped him on a personal level, he said. He battled cancer twice and said that the love and support of his wife, in addition to the values of perseverance, strength, spirituality, and courage that he developed while at NU, got him through those challenging times.
“Niagara gave me so much,” he said. “My heart will always be at Niagara.”
Elena Iacovangelo Cariola, B.A.’97
Elena Iacovangelo Cariola planned to become a teacher. But when she returned to her Rochester, N.Y., home after graduating from Niagara University in 1997 with her bachelor’s degree in education/Spanish, she found that full-time jobs were scarce. Although she loved the teaching profession, she decided to follow a family legacy of law with the idea that she could always get back into teaching when jobs became available.
The education she received at Niagara, coupled with her strong work ethic, prepared her for this new career focus, she discovered. She passed the LSATs with little difficulty and was accepted into Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where she earned her J.D. in 2002.
“Niagara prepares you for any kind of next step that you’re going to take,” she said, “whether it’s getting your master’s or going to law school, or whatever it is. You get a solid Catholic education, and you know you have to work hard to accomplish your goals. I think when you have that kind of framework around you, guiding you, that can take you anywhere.”
Her first job in law was with Gallo & Iacovangelo, LLP, a firm co-founded by her father, where she specialized in estate planning and administration, residential and commercial real estate. She became a partner with the firm in 2012.
In 2011, her expertise in that area led to her appointment as Monroe County deputy public administrator. In this role, she appeared in that county’s Surrogate Court almost weekly to manage the assets of estates for people who died without a will, learning more about the court system and other areas of the law.
Ten years later, that experience motivated Elena to pursue a career goal that had intrigued her since law school.
“I’ve always wanted to serve in the Supreme Court, but I just didn’t know if the opportunity would ever come about, and it did,” she said. “Having the education of all of those different types of cases and the real estate background made me a really well-rounded attorney, and I felt comfortable running for a Supreme Court spot.”
Elena spent a year on the campaign trail, meeting those she would eventually serve while still practicing law with the firm. It was exhausting, she admits, but well worth it when she won the election, a victory that was especially gratifying in light of the fact she had lost her bid for Monroe County Surrogate Court judge by a close margin the year before.
“I was just absolutely elated and excited to start my new role,” she said. “I thought, this is my path, this is what I’m supposed to do.”
She is just beginning her 14-year term in the seventh judicial district alongside fellow Purple Eagle Jim Walsh, and is focused on learning her new role. She notes that her biggest challenge is the change in perspective from representing a client’s best interests as an attorney to impartially hearing and deciding the cases before her as a Supreme Court justice in New York state’s highest trial court.
“It’s interesting when you start, you really have to change your whole mindset about how you are supposed to be thinking,” she said. “You have to train yourself to put opinions aside.
“As a practicing attorney, I know what it’s like to appear before the court,” she continued, “and I just want to be that person on the bench who treats everybody with respect and makes fair decisions.”
Like Jim, Elena’s career in law comes from her desire to serve others.
“I really, really believe one person can change the world or, at least, make a positive change in their community,” she said. “When I was teaching, I would say to myself, if you can inspire just one student, then you’ve done your job. And if you inspire more than one, that’s even better. So every day, I get up and I say this is what I’m meant to do because I love this community, and I want to make a positive impact.”
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