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Unopposed judicial candidates to take bench despite negative ratings from peers

Erie County Court’s next judge will take the bench in 2016 even though he is “not recommended” by the Erie County Bar Association. And the two candidates expected to receive “cross endorsements” for State Supreme Court have been judged only as “qualified” – the lowest favorable rating.

James F. Bargnesi, an assistant district attorney well known as a homicide prosecutor, is assured of election in November because only he and incumbent County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio – both Democrats – qualified for two open positions on the ballot. While DiTullio garnered the bar association’s highest rating of “outstanding,” Bargnesi will take office saddled by the highly unusual situation of a negative rating from his peers.

Similarly, the two candidates expected to be nominated at Democratic and Republican judicial nominating conventions later this month also will take the bench without opposition but with poor ratings from the bar association. Democrat Frank A. Sedita III, the Erie County district attorney, and Republican divorce attorney Emilio Colaiacovo both received the bar association’s “qualified” rating –“well qualified” and “outstanding” represent the two highest ratings – and both are expected to be cross-endorsed by the two major parties and assured of election.

The process of bipartisan backing, essentially sealed by the agreement of the Erie County Republican and Democratic chairmen, has resulted in uncontested elections for roughly half of State Supreme Court candidates in Western New York since 1995.

Sedita has refused to comment on any potential candidacy this year and did not submit his name to the bar association for its review. The legal group’s Judiciary Committee, however, decided to address the district attorney’s potential judicial candidacy because of its policy to rate those also “rumored” to be running.

Sedita could conceivably maintain that position until he appears before the judicial nominating conventions in late September.

Bargnesi may be best known as the prosecutor in the case of Dr. James G. Corasanti, the Amherst physician charged in the hit-and-run death of Alix Rice, an 18-year-old killed in July 2011 on Heim Road as she skated home from work on her longboard.

Though Corasanti was convicted in 2012 of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated, Bargnesi and fellow prosecutors failed to obtain convictions on three felony charges – including second degree manslaughter.

Bargnesi did not return a call seeking comment, but his lawyer – former state Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco – called it “hard to fathom that a person with 18 years in the District Attorney’s Office should not be recommended for a position in a court that deals primarily with criminal law.”

Vacco said he represented Bargnesi in a bar association appeal process after his client was informed last week that he would receive the “not recommended” rating.

He said he presented a letter of recommendation from Joseph J. Terranova, chairman of the bar association’s Criminal Justice Committee, who has no formal role in the process but who testified to Bargnesi’s judicial qualifications.

Vacco said Bargnesi was initially questioned by Judiciary Committee members about “his aggressive prosecutorial style.”

“I thought that Mr. Bargnesi, in his presentation, addressed all the concerns raised,” Vacco said. “It’s sometimes difficult to explain how prosecutorial positions on cases are dictated by the facts and law, not personal motivation.”

Vacco said Bargnesi’s appeal also was based on his ability to “convey a judicial temperament and his commitment to public service, his family and his profession.”

“The point I stressed, and that I think was overlooked, is the fact that many hard-nosed prosecutors have gone on to be great judges,” Vacco said, adding that over the years he has encountered few members of the bar association’s ratings panel with “prosecutorial perspective.”

Now Bargnesi is headed for the bench with the “not recommended” rating even though he is assured of election. While Vacco would not address that point, he said he is confident Bargnesi will prove his detractors wrong.

“He arrives on the bench with a new beginning and the opportunity to prove to the bar association and this community that he will be a smart and especially fair-minded judge,” Vacco said.

In other judicial ratings, the association found Buffalo City Judge Debra L. Givens “qualified,” though she is not expected to receive a Supreme Court nomination. Family Court candidates Kelly Anne Brinkworth and Michele A. Brown were deemed “well qualified,” while Brenda M. Freedman was rated “outstanding.”

City Judge JaHarr S. Pridgen was rated “well qualified” in her bid for Buffalo City Court.