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Denise O’Donnell nominated for federal bench

Denise E. O’Donnell added another first to her résumé Wednesday.

Seventeen years after her appointment as U.S. attorney in Buffalo – she was the first woman to serve in the job – O’Donnell became the first woman to be nominated as a federal district judge here.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the state’s senior senator and, like O’Donnell, a Democrat, announced the historic decision Wednesday, calling his nominee one of New York’s best and brightest legal minds.

O’Donnell, if confirmed by the Senate, would replace U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, who is moving to senior status.

“She’s a moderate, thoughtful, caring person in her bones,” Schumer said Wednesday. “I know her well. A lot of times when you interview the judge candidates, you’re meeting them for the first time, but I’ve known Denise for 15 years, and I knew how good she would be.”

O’Donnell, 67, would be the second female district judge in the Western District of New York, but the other – Elizabeth A. Wolford, a Buffalo native – serves in Rochester. Schumer, who has put a priority on increasing diversity in the federal courts, recommended Wolford last year.

While some in the legal community expressed surprise at O’Donnell’s selection – her age was considered a drawback – lawyers familiar with her background and experience called it a wise political move by Schumer.

To a person, they think O’Donnell, who has already been screened by the Senate on two previous occasions, will be easily confirmed, not an insignificant prospect given the partisan nature of the Senate.

“The fact that Denise has been vetted twice by the FBI and Justice Department will hasten the nomination process,” said Dennis C. Vacco, a Republican and former state attorney general.

Vacco, who oversaw O’Donnell when he was U.S. attorney and she was a prosecutor, expects her to be easily confirmed. He also thinks she’s a much-needed addition to the courts here. “What it underscores is Schumer’s desire for women on the bench and, in my estimation, that’s long overdue,” Vacco said.

Well known throughout Buffalo’s legal and political communities, O’Donnell is viewed as a savvy and experienced lawyer well schooled in both civil and criminal law.

“Denise has a good temperament to be a federal judge,” said Daniel C. Oliverio, a former law partner at Hodgson Russ.

Adam W. Perry, another former law partner, described O’Donnell as “a woman of great legal substance.”

He sees her likely appointment by President Obama as history-making. “It’s an important statement that diversity on the bench is important,” he said.

Privately, several lawyers expressed surprise, even shock, at Schumer’s selection of O’Donnell, but only because of her age.

At a time when many senators are looking to pack the federal bench with young jurists, Schumer is opting for a more experienced candidate.

“She’s in excellent health,” Schumer said. “She’s very vigorous. She intends to stay as an active judge on the bench for as long as she can, and it would be at a minimum of 10 years, probably longer. So (her age) didn’t influence me too much.

“And you know,” he added, “there’s nothing wrong with having some people of experience and wisdom.”

In her current job at the Justice Department, O’Donnell administers grants in excess of $5 billion while working to implement data-driven criminal-justice policy.

Before joining the Obama administration, she served as deputy secretary for public safety in New York State and commissioner of the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

In 2010, she garnered attention when she quit her $165,000-a-year job as a criminal-justice adviser to then-Gov. David A. Paterson.

O’Donnell resigned in protest over alleged misconduct by Paterson and the State Police. They were accused of contacting the alleged victim of a domestic abuse incident involving one of the governor’s top aides.

“It is particularly distressing that this could happen in an administration that prides itself on its record of combating domestic violence,” O’Donnell said at the time. She ran for state attorney general in 2006 but withdrew when she didn’t get the Democratic nomination.

Even now, years later, she maintains a campaign finance fund with more than $300,000.

As a prosecutor, O’Donnell climbed the ladder of leadership during her 16 years in the local U.S. Attorney’s Office. It was during this time that she played a prominent role in the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

For those who know her well, especially women in the legal community, O’Donnell is more than a role model.

“She’s the reason I’m a lawyer,” said Gayle L. Eagan, a Buffalo attorney and past president of the New York State Women’s Bar Association. “Denise was a mentor to me and encouraged me to go to law school. And I’m not the only woman she mentored.”

Among criminal defense lawyers, the people who battled her while she was U.S. Attorney, O’Donnell is viewed as tough but fair.

“She’s above board, honest and she’s always been fair with me," said John J. Molloy, a well-known Buffalo defense attorney.

Terrence M. Connors, another prominent defense lawyer, described O’Donnell as a lawyer with a “remarkable breadth of legal experience."

“She has excelled at every level,” Connors said. “Her appointment to the bench is the next logical progression in her career. She fits the mold of one of her mentors, former Appellate Division Justice Dolores Denman, one of the finest members of our judiciary.”

O’Donnell is married to John F. O’Donnell, a State Supreme Court justice, and they have two children, Maura and Jack. Maura is an assistant U.S. attorney in Buffalo, and Jack runs a consulting firm known as O’Donnell and Associates.

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