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Review process questioned

The Monroe County Bar Association is reviewing its process of rating judicial candidates.

President Susan Schultz Laluk said the process is periodically reviewed, but the process of bar associations evaluating the candidates was ripped this week by Edward L. Fiandach, an adjunct assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester, who focused on the rating of a particular candidate.

This year, the Monroe County Bar Association and the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission for the Seventh Judicial District rated East Rochester Town Justice Vicki Argento as “not qualified” for the Monroe County Court judgeship she was seeking, while the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys found her “qualified.”

Fiandach said he is friends will all six candidates who ran and felt each was “eminently qualified,” including Judge Argento, whom he has practiced before in East Rochester Town Court where she has been serving since 2002.

“Any one of them would have been more than acceptable as a county court judge,” Fiandach said. He compared the evaluation system to restaurants rating other restaurants, saying it doesn’t provide a clear and honest assessment.

“If you were to go out there and ask restaurants what they think of competing restaurants, you can figure out what you’ll get. I lecture all over the country to lawyers and universally, I found — and other speakers have found — when lecturing before their own hometown lawyers, you will uniformly get the lowest ratings,” he said. “Is it jealousy? Is it that old adage that I wouldn’t go out with anybody that wouldn’t go out with me?”

Fiandach said the majority of people who participated in the MCBA poll in particular, had little or no judicial involvement with any of the candidates who were serving in judicial positions. He estimated between 1,600 to 2,300 practitioners were polled with about 200 familiar with taking lower-level court cases and doing trials in the local justice courts.

“When you send out a large pool of requests like that to many people who have never seen these people do their jobs, you get both personal and political bias,” Fiandach said. “Unless you’re actually surveying the people who have seen these judges do their work, the surveys are meaningless. I think that by far, the public needs to take a hard look at both the need and the importance of bar polls such as these.”

Laluk, a partner at Hiscock & Barclay LLP, defended the process. She said Judge Argento did not accuse the board of being biased, but that the process is periodically criticized from a number of different directions.

Laluk also said attorneys filling out the MCBA survey have to certify that they have had sufficient professional contact with candidates to make a meaningful judgment.

“If they don’t, they’re not supposed to fill out the survey,” she said. “Most bar associations located in major metropolitan areas around the country do conduct judicial evaluations. It’s to inform the electorate.”

She said the process is confidential so she wouldn’t discuss specifics on the rating of Judge Argento.

Laluk said the process involves a combination of the survey, candidate interviews, interviews of references, a candidate questionnaire and a writing sample review. She said the review committee consists of 20 to 30 people and is balanced with members representing different races, political parties, genders and ages.

Laluk said MCBA President-elect Bryan D. Hetherington, chief counsel at the Empire Justice Center, is chairing a committee to look at the review process.

“We’re looking at all aspects of it,” Laluk said. “Should we use a survey? Should we change the survey? Should we use a different survey for the level of judges?”

She said the committee has been asked to make recommendations to the bar board of trustees. Plans call for completing the process this bar year and having changes, if any, in place by the next election season.

“We really have tried to design the process to be as fair as possible,” Laluk said. “I have a lot of faith in it.”