Courtesy of Bijoy Datta

Local attorney and law prof. Elizabeth Aherne '95.

March 5, 2021

Cornell Alumna Slated to be First Female to Hold Local State Supreme Court Seat

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Prof. Elizabeth Aherne ’95, law, announced her candidacy for the sixth judicial district of the New York State Supreme Court in December. The election will be held in the fall 2021.

The position opened up when Hon. Robert Mulvey retired in January, after serving as a justice on the Tompkins County Supreme Court since 2001. Currently, Aherne is running unopposed, making her the first woman to hold a Tompkins County Supreme Court seat. 

After receiving her law degree from Georgetown University in 1999, Aherne practiced at multiple law firms before returning to Ithaca, a town she “fell in love with” during her time at Cornell as an undergraduate. 

Once she returned, Aherne founded her own law practice in 2008. Although about half of the work currently done at her law firm covers child welfare law — serving children in foster care — she also handles cases in custody, divorce, wills, trusts and estates, business, real property and personal injury.

But Aherne said her primary focus has always been public service — a passion she discovered at Cornell.

“Throughout my life and throughout my career, public service has presented itself in different forms at different times,” Aherne said. “From leaving Cornell and going to Georgetown, it was to be a child advocate and advocate for neglected and abused children.”

During her time at Cornell, Aherne joined a campus program that helped Cornell staff pass the tests to earn their GEDs and worked as a reader for a professor who was blind. She also was the first female to work at the bell stand in the Statler Hotel.

Aherne recently began virtual outreach and campaigning, but she hasn’t been able to get out and canvass and reach constituents in-person. The sixth judicial district is made up of 10 counties, so reaching a high volume of people was already a big task.

“It’s frustrating, to be honest. I wanted to get out on foot and really meet and talk to people about issues that they’re facing,” Aherne said. “I’ve said that I really want to be a justice that represents the people, and that means getting to know them and that part about campaigning has been frustrating, because it’s not like it would be in any other year.”

For Aherne, running for state supreme court was never something she had planned on — but she said the move would allow her to continue her commitment to public service in a new capacity.

“My colleagues who have seen a lot of my work, they know that I have extensive experience handling cases in the supreme court and so they approached me,” Aherne said. “The notion of doing it comports with really what my idea of my life’s work is, which is public service in some form or another.”

Prof. Kathleen Sullivan, law, and managing attorney for Citizens Concerned for Children, Inc., a  law office that provides legal representation to children in Tompkins County, supported Aherene’s decision. She has worked with Aherne in a professional setting for nine years and co-teaches the Child Advocacy Clinic class at Cornell Law with Aherne.

“It’s always great to see a woman candidate, first of all, because our judiciary still is kind of predominantly men,” Sullivan said. “She really cares about the families that we work with and she cares about people in general. That combination of legal expertise, knowledge and being a caring and gracious individual makes her the perfect judicial candidate.”