The first time I remember hearing the name “Judge Heffernan” was when my good friend Dan DeRossi first invited me to his home at 194 Market Street for some sort of meeting and told me the house had belonged to the man who was long recognized as one of Amsterdam’s most respected members of the legal profession. Christopher J. Heffernan was born in Ireland on May 5, 1882 and came to this country with his parents as a boy, settling in Amsterdam. He was a very good student at St Mary’s Institute and when he graduated from there in 1900, he studied law in the office of Florence Sullivan, successfully passing the New York State Bar exam in 1903.
By 1906 he had already been named city attorney by the Common Council and though the title and scope of that position would undergo a few changes during his tenure, he remained City Hall’s primary legal counsel for the next two decades. In 1925, Heffernan was elected to his first fourteen-year term as Supreme Court Justice of the Fourth Judicial District, which covered 11 upstate counties. He was reelected to that post in 1939.
In 1933, then Governor Herb Lehman appointed the Judge as an associate justice of the same district. What kind of adjudicator was Heffernan? Well he once was ticketed by a local policeman for parking his automobile too far away from the curb and after being brought to the station where his identity became known, insisted on being treated like any other offender. In 1929, he presided over a Hamilton County murder case up in Lake Pleasant, NY. A well known Adirondack guide and woodsman named Ernest Duane had gotten into a fight with his good friend and fellow woodsman Eula Davis, killing him in the process. A newspaper account of the trial described the small courtroom as being packed with scores of lumberjacks and woodsmen who knew both men. The jury found Davis guilty and as Heffernan was about to pass sentence, tears welled in his eyes. “I have but one duty to perform. I have wished it would never come to me, but Mr. Duane, you stand convicted of murder in the first degree, for which the punishment is death.” The reporter writing the article went on to describe Heffernan’s voice shaking, an emotionless Duane and Mrs. Heffernan, the judge’s wife, who must have been on hand to support her husband, trying to smother her own weeping and sobbing.
Heffernan was forced to retire as an active judge in 1953 upon reaching the age of 70, but he was immediately named by the Appellate Division as an official referee, which required him to preside over trials without juries.
The Judge and his wife Anne, raised a family of four girls and a boy. One of Heffernan’s daughters, Christine, married Leonard Bolognino and became a practicing physician in Amsterdam for many years. Their son Christopher Jr, graduated from West Point in 1939 and volunteered to serve in the Philippines, where he was stationed when Japan bombed Manila, just hours after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Chris and his under-supplied and outnumbered 31st Infantry fought valiantly defending the Islands against the Japanese invasion force for three months before surrendering. Young Heffernan died on that day of surrender, a victim of malaria. His death was perhaps merciful because it prevented him from having to take part in the infamous Bataan Death March. You can read a letter about Christopher Jr. from an officer who served with the gallant young man in the Philippines.
Judge Heffernan lived until January 12, 1959, passing away at the age of 76. In his Recorder obituary it was written that, “his opinions received wide recognition because of their analytical context and… clarity” The Heffernan’s were devout members and supporters of St. Mary’s Parrish.