Monroe County Court Judge Kelly C. Wolford is still waiting for absentee ballots to be counted in the Nov. 2 general election before conceding, but the courts appear to be moving on.
Judge Wolford, who was appointed to the county bench in May to fill a vacancy, was the fourth highest vote getter on election night in a six-way race for three seats. There were 2,595 votes separating her from third-highest vote getter East Rochester Town Justice Vicki Argento. The gap has since increased to more than 3,000 with a only couple of hundred votes still uncounted.
Justice Argento, who considered herself the winner on election night, is making plans for the move to county court.
“I’m just very pleased with the outcome,” she said earlier this week. “We worked very hard and I don’t believe that there’s any substitute for hard work and the loyalty of your family and friends. I’m going to do the best job that I can as a Monroe County Court judge.”
Officials in her town have already appointed her replacement. East Rochester Village Mayor Jason Koon, who also serves as the town supervisor in the county’s only co-terminus municipality, has appointed Terrence C. Brown-Steiner of The Odorisi Law Firm of East Rochester to fill the vacancy. Brown-Steiner joins fellow Justice J. Scott Odorisi, also of The Odorisi Law Firm.
On election night, the highest vote getters were Republicans Irondequoit Town Justice Vincent M. Dinolfo with 117,313 votes; Henrietta Town Justice James J. Piampiano, 112,993; and Justice Argento, 103,380. They also ran on the Conservative and Independence lines. Judge Wolford, a Democrat, received 100,785 votes on election night.
There were not enough outstanding ballots to affect the outcomes for Justice Dinolfo and Justice Piampiano, but 7,618 absentee ballots were yet to be counted, enough for Judge Wolford to possibly make up the difference between her and Justice Argento.
Counting absentee votes was complicated by a subsequent court-ordered impoundment of all ballots in the 25th Congressional District, which remains too close to call. A large part of Northeastern Monroe County is in the 25th. Those ballots in Monroe County were counted Friday.
Monroe County Board of Elections Commissioner Peter M. Quinn, earlier this week, said there is still a question on about 236 ballots that were still under impoundment. He said in separate counts Nov. 9, 11 and 12, Justice Argento picked up an additional 4,115 votes to Judge Wolford’s 3,677, increasing the difference from 2,595 to 3,033.
Results are unofficial until certified by the state, but Quinn said he doesn’t think the results will change in the county court race.
“I don’t believe so with the numbers that are left,” he said Tuesday.
Judge Wolford said she had not received any updated numbers and had not conceded. She is hearing cases in Wayne County Court. In fact, because she had been with the district attorney’s office before her May appointment, she was assigned to Monroe County Family Court for six months to avoid a potential conflict of interest with cases she may have worked on as a prosecutor.
The plan was to move her to county court in November, but that changed after the election when it looked like she might not win the judgeship. There was also talk about Judge Wolford returning to the district attorney’s office in January, which she said she can’t rule out as a possibility in case the votes don’t come out in her favor.
The possibility of her hearing criminal cases in county court for more than a month raised concerns with Public Defender Timothy P. Donaher who approached Judge Patricia D. Marks, supervising judge of the criminal courts for the Seventh Judicial District.
He gave her a copy of a 2007 opinion by the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics which addressed a similar matter. In that case, a judge’s personally appointed court attorney had applied for a job with the local, large urban district attorney’s office that prosecuted almost every matter that came before the judge.
Because the matter involved an application for employment, the committee trusted a judge to exercise appropriate discretion, but said action should be taken if the district attorney offered employment or if the two parties were negotiating for a position.
Options include transferring the court attorney to a civil part of court or insulating the court attorney until negotiations ended or, if a job offer was accepted, until the court attorney assumed the new position.
“I have the utmost respect, both personally and professionally for Judge Wolford, but I was concerned about the perception our clients would have when a judge who had conducted their criminal matter, shortly thereafter returns to the district attorney’s office in a senior staff position,” Donaher said. “My concern was predicated upon the common belief that she was returning to the district attorney’s office.”
Judge Marks said Donaher was perfectly within his rights and raised a legitimate issue.
Monroe County District Attorney Michael C. Green would not say whether Judge Wolford would return to his office.
“She’s not here now,” Green said. “She’s still on the bench. I don’t have any comment on what might happen when she’s done with her term on the bench.”
County Communications Department Director Noah Lebowitz said the vacancy created in the district attorney’s office in May when Judge Wolford joined county court remains open.
“The district attorney makes his own hiring decisions,” Lebowitz said. “Assuming he wants to bring her back, that’s his decision.”
Judge Wolford was appointed to the bench in May to replace the Hon. Alexander R. Renzi, now a state supreme court justice. The other vacancies were created by the May 15 death of Judge John J. Connell and the retirement at the end of this year of Judge Richard A. Keenan.
When Judge Wolford was assigned to family court, Family Court Judge Joan S. Kohout began hearing criminal matters. Judge Kohout will be back in family court starting Monday.
“I think that it is appropriate to have Judge Kohout return to family court,” said Judge Craig J. Doran, supervising judge of the family courts. “She’s elected to serve in family court and her assignment in criminal court was only meant to be temporary.”
Judge Wolford stopped hearing family court matters this past Monday. Filling the void left by Judge Kohout’s departure from the criminal courts will be Wayne County Court Judge Daniel G. Barrett. Judge Wolford is filling in for Barrett.
“We looked for someone willing to come to Monroe County and do the judicial version of trading places,” said Judge Marks. “It’s pretty routine. As of Monday, he will cover the cases Judge Kohout had in the interim.”