Judge John Rowley: A Lenient and Compassionate Leader in Tompkins County’s Justice System

ITHACA, N.Y. – After serving for 23 years as the Tompkins County Judge, John Rowley has decided to step down from his position. With his resignation taking effect on March 1, Rowley leaves behind a legacy of compassion and progress in the local court system. One of his notable achievements was the establishment of the county’s first drug court in collaboration with former Judge Judy Rossiter in 1998. This specialized court program offers defendants the opportunity to undergo long-term treatment with court supervision instead of facing jail time, aligning with the goal of creating trauma-informed and solution-focused environments.

Throughout his career, Rowley prioritized emphasizing these aspects within the courtroom, believing they would lead to the best outcomes for both the community and the defendants. Beyond his accomplishments in the legal field, Rowley has a personal connection to Tompkins County. Having graduated from Cornell University in 1982 and earned his J.D. from SUNY at Buffalo School of Law in 1987, he and his wife returned to the county because of their affinity for the area.

As a judge, Rowley rejected the traditional notion of neutrality, choosing instead to bring his own experiences and biases into his practice. With 32 years of sobriety under his belt, he saw his own journey as a valuable tool to inform his approach. Rowley sought to shift away from using shame in addiction and family cases and towards validation and motivation. To him, judges are not just arbitrators, but conveners and community leaders responsible for forging partnerships with local agencies to better the lives of those involved in the court system.

Rowley’s dedication to engagement and support is evident in his presence at family treatment court. Instead of sitting behind his desk in a suit jacket, he stands at the podium, among the defendants and their families. He believes in approaching individuals with genuine empathy and focusing on comfortable and realistic solutions to improve their lives. Rowley’s hope is that those who pass through his courtroom feel that the county court is genuinely committed to helping them, rather than undermining or condescending to their struggles.

Recognizing the challenges of addiction, Rowley understands that sending individuals to jail rarely leads to lasting change. Instead, he aims to identify their needs, supporting them in their journey to recovery or providing for their children. For Rowley, it’s crucial to treat people with respect and ask how the court can make their lives easier.

In summary, Judge John Rowley’s retirement marks the end of an era in the Tompkins County court system. His compassionate and progressive approach has transformed the local court system, ensuring that individuals facing addiction and family struggles are met with understanding and support. As he leaves his position, Rowley’s legacy serves as a reminder of the power of empathy and the importance of collaboration between the court and community agencies.