History Is on Parade in Buffalo's Federal Case Files

Article excerpt

Women's rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony was the defendant in one of the more unusual cases ever to be handled by the federal courts of Western New York.

On Nov. 5, 1872, Anthony was arrested in Rochester after she walked into a voting station, refused to take no for an answer and cast her ballot in a congressional election.

The incident occurred 48 years before America's women won the right to vote, and federal marshals arrested Anthony on a charge of illegal voting.

"[Anthony] did knowingly, wrongfully and unlawfully vote for a candidate" and could not legally do so because she was "a person of the female sex," federal prosecutors charged in a document still on file at federal court.

"Ultimately, Susan Anthony was convicted and fined $100," said Jean Spampata, chief deputy court clerk for the Western District of New York. "But she never paid the fine."

Anthony's was one of tens of thousands cases -- some of them influential and far-reaching -- that passed through the region's federal courts over the past 222 years.

Among the biggest and most publicized cases:

* The Love Canal case. Litigated for almost 20 years, it was perhaps the nation's most famous trial over corporate responsibility for polluting the environment. Occidental Chemical paid $233 million to settle legal issues related to chemical contamination that forced hundreds of families to move out of a Niagara Falls neighborhood in 1978.

* The Attica Prison rebellion case. After a tumultuous trial and numerous settlement efforts, New York state paid $20 million to the families of hostages and prisoners who were injured or killed after authorities fired on them during an infamous 1971 prison uprising.

* The James C. Kopp case. Sentenced to life in prison in 2007, anti-abortion activist Kopp was the first person in the United States convicted of assassinating an abortion provider -- Dr. Barnett A. Slepian of Amherst -- in his own home.

* The Lackawanna Six case. Often heralded by former President George W. Bush as one of the nation's most successful strikes in the war on terrorism, the case involved six men from Lackawanna who were arrested in 2002 and later sent to federal prisons for training with terrorists in Afghanistan.

"It's a very busy court," said Spampata, who has been doing some historical research in connection with the recent opening of Buffalo's new federal court building.

Western New York has had federal court proceedings since the federal court system was established in 1789, but Buffalo didn't have its own federal courthouse until 1936, when the U.S. Courthouse opened at Franklin and Court streets. …