From traffic tickets to criminal charges, from leasing disputes to domestic violence, the Syracuse City Court judges make those crucial decisions every day.
And on Nov. 5, city voters will choose a new city court judge to succeed retiring Judge Jeffrey Merrill. Merrill, 67, will soon reach New York’s mandatory judge retirement age of 70. He will not seek re-election, he said, because he doesn’t want to serve a term he couldn’t fulfill. Merrill will officially step down on Dec. 31.
As of March 24, four potential candidates have expressed interest in running for the judgeship: Republican Romana Lavalas, a prosecutor in the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office; Democrat Louis Levine, a Syracuse lawyer; and James Romeo, also a Syracuse lawyer. Democrat Mary Anne Doherty, the city’s lawyer or corporation counsel, also has expressed interests in the position, according to the Onondaga County Democratic Committee.
Among the City of Syracuse’s 70,696 registered active voters, 54 percent — or 38,799– are Democrats, compared to 16 percent — or 11,362 — of Republicans, and about 22 percent are no party voters, according to statistics provided by Onondaga County Board of Elections.
As of April 1, the salary of a Syracuse City Court judge is $139,200. It is a fulltime position.
Retiring Judge Merrill is the only elected Republican government official in the city of Syracuse. To be a good judge, fairness and knowledge of the law system is not adequate, he said. A judge also needs to have an understanding of human nature, said Merrill.
“I am a firm believer that the system should be used for positive changes, not just making numbers or convictions but actually get them to understand why they are motivated to do bad things and get them on the path to change,” said Merrill. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”
Here is a closer look at the potential candidates:
Romana Lavalas (Republican)
Lavalas, 39, has been a prosecutor for almost 13 years. The biggest challenge with the criminal justice system, Lavalas said, is it that “tends to treat people as numbers, but not necessarily as people.” There should be more social programs to prevent people from turning into criminals in the first place, she said.
In the county district attorney’s office, she often prosecutes in cases of drunk driving. She is a member of Onondaga County Youth Court Advisory Board and often lectures across the county about preventing underage drinking and driving.
This is the second time Lavalas has run for city court judge. In 2011, she lost to incumbent judges Karen Uplinger and Rory McMahon, both Democrats. She blamed her loss on her lack of political experience and on the strong Democratic advantage in voter enrollment.
She’s trying again, she said, because “my life-long aspiration has been becoming a judge.” She added, “I believe at this point I have the proper experience to do so.”
Lavalas was born in Brooklyn in 1974 to a black-Hispanic family of immigrants. In 1995, she graduated from the State University of New York at Albany with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. In1999, she received her law degree from Syracuse University College of Law.
Louis Levine (Democrat)
Levine, 61, is a partner and the head of bankruptcy and collections department at Syracuse law firm Melvin and Melvin. He works with business clients on commercial and consumer collections and bankruptcy cases.
This is the first time Levine has run for office.
He is eager to improve the public images of the justice system with his experience and skills, he said. “When I go to court my clients will always ask me whether we going to get a good judge or how are we going to get a good judge. The mere fact that someone asks that question shows that there is a lack of confidence in the system,” said Levine. “I think we have to put the best candidates available to be on the bench so people don’t need to ask such questions.”
James Romeo (Democrat)
Romeo, 50, is a partner of Syracuse law firm Romeo and Romeo. From 1989 to 1991, he was an assistant district attorney.
The experience of working on both sides of justice system –– both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney –– and on a variety of areas including criminal and civil cases, Romeo said, make him a strong candidate for the judgeship. This is the first time Romeo has run for office.
Romeo was twice appointed by city court judges as a special prosecutor, a position needed when there is conflict of interest in the district attorney’s office. “That basically is an acknowledgement by the city court judges that I will be fair and I will bring justice to the case,” said Romeo.
As for his future plans, Romeo lists public safety as his top priority. “I want to concentrate my use of resources protecting the neighborhood and keeping our neighborhood safe,” said Romeo. “That means taking a harsh stance on violent criminals and taking a harsh stance on absentee landlords.”
Mary Anne Doherty (Democrat)
(Editor’s note: This story was updated with information from Doherty on April 22, 2013)
Doherty, 52, has worked for the city of Syracuse for 12 years and spent 10 of those years as a litigator. In 2011, she was appointed by Mayor Stephanie Miner as Syracuse corporation counsel, where she managed an office of 12 attorneys and 10 staff. The corporation counsel offers legal advice to the mayor, the city departments and other city agencies about economic development, real estate transactions and other legal issues, according to the city’s website.
“It has been a dream of mine to become a judge,” Doherty said in an email interview. “I feel that my experience with the city makes me a unique candidate as I am intimately aware of city residents’ concerns because I have dealt with the residents and their concerns for 12 years.”
Doherty volunteered for about seven years at Vera House for the Monday Evening Clinic, a program to give women free legal advice. She is a former vice president of the Central New York Women’s Bar Association.
Doherty earned her law degree from Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., in 1999, and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Syracuse University in 1985.
(Maya Gao Qian is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)