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Monroe County Court dynamics changing

Third bench vacancy awaits third highest vote getter

Joining the Monroe County Court following Tuesday’s election are Irondquoit Town Justice Vincent M. Dinolfo and Henrietta Town Justice James J. Piampiano. The third vacancy has yet to be decided — the margin of difference between the third and fourth place vote getters is less than the number of absentee ballots. Hall of Justice photo used with permission

The Monroe County Court will enter a new era in January with half of the six judges being new.

It may also have a Republican majority, depending on the final outcome of the general election once absentee ballots are counted.

Joining the court in January will be Irondequoit Town Justice Vincent M. Dinolfo and Henrietta Town Justice James J. Piampiano, both Republicans, who were the top vote getters Tuesday in a six-way race for three open seats.

“I’m thrilled,” said Judge Piampiano. “I’m very appreciative of the trust and confidence that the voters expressed in our campaign.”

The margin of their victory is significant enough to avoid being impacted by the addition of absentee ballots, but the third vacancy could be filled by either East Rochester Town Justice Vicki Argento or Judge Kelly C. Wolford, the third and fourth highest vote getters, respectively. There is a 2,595 vote difference which Judge Wolford could make up once more than 7,618 absentee ballots are opened.

The new judges will join Judge Patricia D. Marks, who is the supervising judge of the criminal courts; Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. and Judge John L. De Marco.

Judge Marks said it is unusual to have so many judges join the court at the same time.

“It hasn’t happened in the 26 years that I’ve been here,” she said. “It will be nice to have a full complement of county court judges.”

Judge Marks said she will take time out to orient the new judges and plans to contact each soon.

Vincent M Dinolfo

There has been at least one vacancy on the court for more than a year. The current vacancies were created by the departure of Judge Alexander R. Renzi, who was elected to the state Supreme Court in 2009, leaving the county court in January; the May 15 death of Judge John J. Connell; and the retirement of Judge Richard A. Keenan at the end of this year.

Judge Wolford was appointed in May to fill Judge Renzi’s seat, but needs to win the election to start her own 10-year term.

Judge Renzi and Judge De Marco were the only Republicans on the court. If Judge Argento is declared the winner, the court will have a Republican majority of 4-2 including Judge De Marco.

If Judge Wolford wins, it will be a 3-3 tie with fellow Democrats Judge Marks and Judge Geraci, but Judge Marks said politics doesn’t matter.

“When they come through this door, the politics go out the door,” Judge Marks said. “Politics should have nothing to do with being a judge. I’m confident that this group of judges will do that.”

James J. Piampiano

Edward L Fiandach, an adjunct assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester, agrees, but noted politics play a part in the process of getting to the bench.

He attributed the apparent Republican sweep to the fact the it is a strong year for Republicans nationally and to the Conservative endorsement the three had, which Judge Wolford unsuccessfully sought.

“You could say if she had the Conservative endorsement, that would have picked up the couple of thousand-vote spread,” Fiandach said. “It shows the importance of having that Conservative endorsement, especially in a year such as this. This was a sharply conservative year with the whole movement of the tea party and throw the incumbents out. You could see that with the shift that was undertaken in the House. The country turned hard right this year I think in response to what they perceived to be the failings of Washington.”

Fiandach is in favor of having judges elected, as opposed to being appointed which he said is too easy to become a dumping ground for nepotism and repayment of political favors.

“Both of them are fraught with risk, but I think that election is the lesser of the two evils,” he said. “The elective process has its own set of problems. I think it all boils down to financial. It’s no secret judges solicit money from the people who practice before them. Everybody does it.”

Fiandach admitted the election season is uncomfortable for attorneys who are approached for donations. He said they’re afraid to say no.

“What do you do?” he said. “Can you donate to one and not the other? It’s pretty tough. These people are all friends. Some donate to nobody or everybody, which turns outs to be a wash.”

Fiandach said he has never known a judge to rule with a lawyer who has donated money, but that being lawyers, they’re continually thinking in terms of an adversarial process. He compared it to a baseball game.

“Let’s say the umpires were paid by the players and the players have the option of contributing to the umpires’ pay or not,” Fiandach said. “What do you think the batter’s going to say on a called third strike if he didn’t donate to that particular umpire? Did it matter? Did it not matter?”

On the other hand, he said election campaigns are expensive to run and lawyers tend to be sympathetic, not knowing if the candidate is “reaching deep into the family finances — maybe the kid’s college fund — to finance their campaign.”

Fiandach is in favor of candidates having their own independent blind trustees who would enforce rules in terms of maximum donations. He said the trustee would be precluded from disclosing financial information, except by court order, and would turn the money over to the judicial candidates.

“Is that going to reduce the level of judicial donations?” Fiandach said. “It very well may, but it eliminates the fear or appearance of impropriety, which has been the elephant in the room in judicial elections since the beginning of time. At least you’ll know judges have no idea of who has made contributions.”

The New York State Bar Association’s objective is to reform the law to require a commission-based process for the selection of judges, according to an e-mail. That process, whereby a non-partisan commission would recommend a limited number of candidates for selection by the appointing authority, would eliminate the influence of partisan politics and ensure that competence, temperament and integrity are the primary factors regarding selection of judges.

“However, until that goal is achieved, the association recognizes and supports the need for improvements in the operation of judicial conventions to address the practical and constitutional infirmities that exist,” the response says. “The Association has long supported numerous proposals relating to the selection of New York state judges that are designed to enhance public trust and confidence in the legal system.’

Fiandach questions the election process for higher judges though such as the Appellate Division, where Presiding Justice Henry J. Scudder succeeded in winning his race for state Supreme Court justice to maintain his seat on the higher court.

“I always get worried when I see an Appellate Division judge up for election,” Fiandach said, recalling Appellate Justice Robert L. Lund’s defeat two years ago. “If that person got to the Appellate Division, they’re an extremely competent judge.”

Judge Scudder is the highest judge in the eight-county Fourth Department.

“You couldn’t find a better a better judge than Hank Scudder,” Fiandach said. “You couldn’t create a judge better than Hank Scudder.”

Fiandach and Judge Marks also agree that the field of candidates was well qualified. The other two candidates, both Democrats, were Brighton Town Justice Karen L. Morris and Vincent J. Rizzo, an investigator for the Rochester City School District. 

“We’re going to have a great county court,” Fiandach said. “Everybody on that bench is experienced. These are not lawyers that are going to have to be retrained to be judges.”

On final vote counts:

Absentee ballots in local judicial races will be opened Tuesday.

Monroe County Board of Elections Commissioner Peter M. Quinn said a state court order impounding all absentee ballots has been lifted locally with the exception of the 25th Congressional District race, which is still too close to call.

He said there are 7,618 absentee ballots in Monroe County. More could still come in because voters had until Monday to have them postmarked. In addition, the deadline for military and overseas ballots has been extended to Nov. 24.

Quinn said all absentee ballots in hand will be counted Tuesday with tallies adjusted should additional ballots come in.

The Daily Record’s results, published Wednesday, were incomplete in the race for state Supreme Court justice because two of the eight counties had not finished counting votes. The race was won by incumbent Republican Justice Henry J. Scudder, who received 192,424 votes Tuesday, compared to 128,770 garnered by his opponent, Steven J. Lynch of Suffolk County, an Independence Party candidate who ran on the Democratic line.

All results are unofficial until certified by the state, which Quinn said he expects to happen by the end of the month.