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City Court primary attracts 7 candidates for 4 seats

Three veteran Buffalo City Court judges seeking another term, a mayoral appointee vying for a full term and three lawyers interested in serving on the bench are competing in two September party primaries for four 10-year seats on the busy court. The job has a $113,900-a-year salary.

Judges David M. Manz and Robert T. Russell Jr. are seeking third terms on the civil and criminal court; Judge Joseph A. Fiorella is seeking a second term; and Judge Susan M. Eagan, appointed to the bench by Mayor Byron W. Brown in January, is seeking her first full term.

They are running in the Democratic Party primary against Diane Y. Wray, a prominent real estate and housing attorney, and well-known local attorney Anthony L. Pendergrass.

The four sitting judges are also vying against Gillian D. Brown, the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority's former interim executive director and its former general counsel, in the Working Families Party primary.

This marks the first run at elective office for Eagan, Wray and Brown.

Whatever the outcomes of the two primaries, Manz will be on the November ballot on the Republican and Conservative party lines and Eagan, Russell and Fiorella will be on the November ballot on the Republican, Conservative, and Independence party lines because they were not challenged in primaries in those parties.

Manz, 57, a former Erie County legislator for the city's Black Rock district and son of the late Erie County Family Court Judge Victor E. Manz, is a 1978 graduate of Albany Law School.

He carries the endorsements of the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties.

Russell, 57, an acting Erie County Court judge and the husband of Buffalo Common Council Member Bonnie Russell, launched and still oversees City Court's nationally recognized specialized courts program, which began with the Drug Court in December 1995 and now includes Mental Health and Veterans courts.

Russell is a past chairman of the board of directors of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, a past president of the New York State Association of Drug Treatment Court Professionals and also serves on the national advisory board of the Judges Criminal Justice/Mental Health Leadership Initiative.

A Buffalo-born graduate of Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., Russell carries the endorsements of the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence parties.

Fiorella, 63, is a Marine Corps veteran who used to be supervising hearing examiner in the City of Buffalo's parking violations bureau and administrative judge for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. He never attended law school, but passed the bar exam and became a lawyer in 1979. He worked his way into the legal profession as a legal clerk at a Buffalo law firm, and is a 1969 Niagara University economics graduate.

Fiorella, an acting Erie County Court judge and presiding judge at the Buffalo City Court's Driving Under the Influence Court, has been endorsed in his re-election bid by the Democratic, Republican, Independence, Conservative and Working Families parties.

Eagan, 40, got a one-year appointment to the City Court bench on Jan. 3, topping 14 other applicants who petitioned the mayor for consideration.

A former lawyer with the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, for which she investigated the ethical conduct of other lawyers before her judicial appointment, Eagan was an assistant Erie County district attorney from 1998 to 2003. She was a key prosecutor in the 2001 conviction here of serial rapist Nache Afrika. She's a 1996 graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School.

She carries the endorsement of the Democratic, Republican, Independence, Conservative and Working Families parties.

Wray, 57, a former Catholic Charities social worker who dealt with severely emotionally disturbed children and their families, is a community activist and former adjunct professor of social work at Buffalo State College. She is running without political party endorsements.

Wray earned her law degree at UB in 1983 and obtained a master's degree from the UB School of Social Work with a concentration in community problems in 1996.

Gillian Brown, 47, was general counsel of the BMHA from 1995 to 2007, and also served as the authority's interim executive director. Brown was a Buffalo Housing Court public defender from 1991 through 1995.

A former staff attorney for the New York State Mental Hygiene Legal Service in the early 1990s, Brown earned his law degree at UB Law in 1989.

Brown is currently special counsel to the Buffalo law firm Colucci & Gallaher. He is endorsed by the Working Families Party and will remain on the November general election ballot if he captures one of four top spots in that party's primary.

Pendergrass, 44, a well-known Buffalo barrister who has taken on high-profile civil rights cases, failed to respond to calls from The Buffalo News or to messages left on his Facebook page online.

The Bar Association of Erie County has given Russell its highest rating of "outstanding." The bar association has rated Manz, Fiorella and Eagan "well qualified," and has given both Pendergrass and Wray its "not recommended" rating.

The Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission of the state's Rochester-based 4th Department has rated Manz, Fiorella and Russell "highly qualified" and rated Eagan "qualified." The commission rated Wray "not found qualified." Pendergrass did not seek a rating from the court-connected commission.

The Western New York Chapter of the Women's Bar Association of the State of New York rated Russell "outstanding" and rated Manz and Eagan "highly qualified" and Fiorella "qualified." The women's bar group reported that Wray and Pendergrass both declined to be rated by that organization.

The Minority Bar Association of Western New York has given its highest rating of "superior" to both Russell and Fiorella. The Minority Bar rated Eagan and Manz "well qualified" and rated Brown "qualified."

email: mgryta@buffnews.com