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Bob Antonacci defends his credentials to be a judge, but ducks Bar Assn. reviews

Syracuse, NY — As he runs for a state judge’s job, state Sen. Bob Antonacci has more name recognition than most candidates and less courtroom experience than many.

Antonacci, the former Onondaga County comptroller, says he’s qualified to be a state Supreme Court judge. Yet, he’s the only one of five candidates in November’s election not to submit to the Onondaga County Bar Association or the Onondaga County Women’s Bar Association ratings processes.

All four of the other candidates in the “pick three” election have been rated as “qualified” by the county bar association, said judiciary chair Jean Marie Westlake. Separately, those four have also been rated “qualified” or “highly qualified” by the women’s bar, said judicial screening co-chair Kelsey Shannon.

Westlake said the overwhelming majority of state Supreme Court candidates in the past decade have submitted to the county bar’s ratings process, which is decided by a panel of lawyers. All sitting Supreme Court justices in Syracuse were rated by the county bar at the time of their elections, she said.

Antonacci said he’s been rated qualified by the bar association in Lewis County. But he made no promises that he’d undergo the Onondaga County bar’s screening process.

“..

. As campaigning permits I will be reaching out to the remaining voluntary screening processes offered,” he said.

Antonacci, who has spent the past 12 years as Onondaga County comptroller and now state senator, disagrees with the idea that he lacks the courtroom experience to be a judge.

“I don’t know how anybody can say that,” said Antonacci, R-Onondaga, who is running for state Supreme Court after a last-minute seat opened following Judge James Tormey’s death.

Antonacci repeatedly referred to a 2016 pay-raise lawsuit — which he filed and argued personally as comptroller — as proof of his legal chops.

Antonacci successfully argued that the county legislature had illegally given itself a pay raise soon after an election.

But he lost a bid to strike down then-County Executive Joanie Mahoney’s pay raise. The legislature gave itself a pay raise nine months later, anyway, and the court contest cost taxpayers $500,000 in legal fees.

Still, Antonacci said the “guts and independence” it took to bring that case are traits needed in a judge. “I’d dare say that’s ‘Exhibit A’ in my legal career,” he said.

But even Antonacci acknowledges he’s taking an unusual path to the ballot for state Supreme Court — the state’s highest level of trial court.

He hasn’t argued in court since the pay-raise lawsuit.

He’s never been a full-time lawyer.

So far, his public life has revolved around his career as an accountant, even running for statewide comptroller in 2014.

And he was just elected state senator a year ago, beginning his first term in Albany.

Antonacci’s pursuit of a judgeship has garnered skeptics and defenders in the Syracuse legal community.

“I don’t think Bob Antonacci has a lot of courtroom experience,” said longtime personal injury lawyer Bob Lahm. “I know he has one or two (cases), but he’s been an accountant most of his career.

Lahm, in practice for more than 40 years, said he favors judges who have “been in the trenches” as trial lawyers themselves. Lahm, a Democrat who was on the committee that named Antonacci’s opponents this fall, noted that he has supported other Republicans, including current local Chief Administrative Judge Jim Murphy.

“There’s a steep learning curve” on the bench, Lahm said. “My preference is to have experienced people.

But one of Antonacci’s opponents in the pay-raise lawsuit praised his qualifications. Bob Julian, a former state Supreme Court justice himself, represented Mahoney in her successful fight against Antonacci’s lawsuit.

“I found him to be a skilled advocate, knowledgeable in regard to the law,” Julian said. “He writes well.

He has a very good temperament. All of those are important components for a judge.

Julian, a Republican, pointed to Antonacci’s experience in public service and accounting as beneficial for a judge who could handle complex commercial, personal injury, divorce or contract cases. Julian recalled a two-day seminar for judges on the accounting part of deciding cases.

Antonacci would come to the bench with that experience.

“His training as an accountant is very useful,” Julian said, adding: “I am a believer that public service is excellent training for the bench.

Retired state Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Republican lawyer who had a long political career, suggested that Antonacci would have to defend his courtroom experience if he wanted to be elected.

DeFrancisco said he hadn’t seen Antonacci in lawyer circles, only in political ones.

“I have no idea what his courtroom experience is,” DeFrancisco said.

“It’s a choice he’s made and it’s something he’s going to have to explain, if there’s such an issue.”

For his part, Antonacci admitted that he’s been out of legal work for more than a decade.

But he called it unfair to hold his 12 years of public service as comptroller and state senator against him because it would have been unethical to take legal clients while doing those jobs, he said.

Antonacci went back to Syracuse University’s School of Law after beginning his career as an accountant.

After graduating summa cum laude in 1993, he opened a private practice as both accountant and lawyer. A day after passing the bar, he appeared in court for a client on a drunken-driving case, he said.

For the next decade, he’d parlay a tax-return client into a legal client, and vice versa, he said.

His legal career led him to argue in federal court, state Supreme Court and the appellate court in Rochester, he said, on cases involving tax evasion, eviction, criminal arrest and bankruptcy.

“I was a one-stop shop,” Antonacci said, of clients using both his accounting and legal expertise.

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