The Onondaga County Courthouse. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

As of last month, there were 18 civil cases on Onondaga County Supreme Court Justice James Murphy’s public docket for the year 2023. 

In nearly 40% of them, Murphy had taken campaign donations from one — or both — of the law firms that had come before his bench. 

Murphy is far from the only Central New York judge or court official to take money from the same lawyers whose cases he decides. In fact, New York State campaign finance data reveals that donations from lawyers and law firms are a cornerstone of judges’ and district attorneys’ campaigns. Of the millions of dollars that candidates for judgeships and DA posts in Central New York have raked in over the past decade, a significant share — nearly $900,000, or 15% — has come from the same law firms who appear before the bench. 

That relationship reflects a state- and nationwide pattern of lawyers supporting judicial campaigns — one that has raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest influencing judges’ and DAs’ decision-making.

Lawyers and judges describe those contributions as mutually beneficial. Lawyers, they contend, have the best perspective on a judicial candidate’s merits and ethical standing, along with a keen interest in seeing qualified jurists make it to the bench. 

But the end result remains a system in which a judge willing to bend the rules can know whether a lawyer or law firm appearing before them has backed their campaign, or their opponent’s. And while campaign finance guidelines exist to shield judges from that kind of influence, the system invests a great deal of faith in individual jurists to act ethically of their own accord. 

“Judges can sit on cases involving campaign contributors, and there’s a presumption that the judge is not going to favor that lawyer,” said Bruce Green, director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University. “The risk and the appearance problems are baked into the system.”

Big firms, big money

Between 2013 and the start of 2023, law firms — including some of Central New York’s largest, most influential practices — have funneled more than $760,000 into races for city, county and Supreme Court posts in the state’s 5th District, which encompasses several counties in Central New York. They’ve given an additional $120,000 to candidates for district attorney in the same time period. 

That total swells further when accounting for lawyers’ individual contributions, records show, with some giving hundreds or thousands of dollars, year after year, on top of their respective law firms’ donations.

The most prolific donors to 5th district campaigns include Hancock Estabrook ($43,000), Porter Nordby Howe ($33,000), Bottar Law ($26,000), Bond, Schoeneck & King ($26,000) and Smith, Sovik, Kendrick & Sugnet ($26,000).

The lion’s share of those contributions — more than $650,000 — have gone to candidates for the state’s Supreme Court, whose judges occupy the highest elected position in the state’s court system and have the broadest jurisdiction. Elected Supreme Court judges can also receive an appointment to serve in the Appellate Divisions, which hear appeals from the Supreme Court. 

Lawyers giving money to judges who may rule on their cases raises ethical questions. But Green and others contend attorneys don’t donate to win influence.

The campaign finance relationship between firms and judges is reflective of the tight-knit nature of the legal community, Green said. Local jurists know and support one another, and they’re invested in quality candidates making it to the bench. 

“The bar is small, and the lawyers and judges know each other and they have a mutual interest in each other’s success,” Green said.

With that relationship comes an implicit trust that judges won’t let campaign dollars skew their decision-making, he said.

Ted Limpert, an Onondaga County Court judge, said lawyers have an incentive to donate to races that otherwise would struggle to find backers among a public largely disinterested in, and uninformed about, judicial elections.

“There’s lawyers out there who want to see good people become judges, and they support them,” Limpert said. “They’re not looking for any particular favors or any good deals, they’re just looking to have a good judiciary.”

Central Current reached out to Onondaga County’s other Supreme, county, and city court judges for comment. Many didn’t respond. Several others declined to comment.

District Attorney William Fitzpatrick also didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Lawyers aren’t the only source of funding for prospective judges. Candidates and their spouses often put up tens of thousands of dollars to finance their own campaigns. 

After that, “it’s really your friends, your neighbors, and the lawyers that you might know that are supportive” who candidates turn to for support, Limpert said.

Prospective judges and DAs can attract sizable donations from outside the legal sphere as well. Local Republican and Democratic committees, as well as good government-focused PACs, back their favored candidates. As do Central New York businesses, including local real estate developers, funeral homes and restaurants.

Labor unions also make major contributions, with area unions like The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 43, Iron Workers Local 60, and Teamsters Local 317 fronting tens of thousands of dollars over the past decade, records show.

Some non-lawyer individual donors also play an outsized role in fundraising contests. One major contributor, Syracuse-based developer James Ranalli, has given more than $30,000 to Onondaga County judicial and DA candidates in the last 10 years under his own name, through his family or through two of his businesses, United Auto Supply and Strada Mia. 

Ranalli and his businesses have been involved in multiple legal battles in recent years, including at least two instances since 2016 in which Onondaga County Supreme Court justices Ranalli has donated to ruled in his favor. He’s also helped fuel other campaigns for local office, recently supplying $10,000 to County Executive Ryan McMahon’s reelection bid. 

Most large individual donors, however, are prominent Central New York lawyers, many of whom make sizable contributions on top of what their firms provide. 

John Cherundolo, a founding partner of Syracuse’s Cherundolo Law Firm, has donated upwards of $20,000 of his own money to judicial or DA candidates in the last 10 years, in addition to the $18,000 his firm has contributed. Scott Brenneck, a managing partner of Cambareri & Brenneck, has chipped in nearly $10,000, almost matching the over $13,000 in spending by his firm. And William Gilberti Jr., a partner at Barclay Damon, has given just shy of $15,000, piling onto the roughly $25,000 donated by his practice.

Perhaps most notable is Thomas Cerio, whose firm, Cerio Law Offices, has contributed about $3,000 in the past decade. On his own, Cerio has given more than $40,000 — individually exceeding the contribution totals of almost all of the law firms included in the data.

Ethical guardrails 

Campaign rules prevent judges from asking for donations themselves, or from knowing who contributed to their campaign “to the extent possible.” A separate fundraising committee must instead solicit donations on their behalf.

In theory, that blind fundraising model insulates judges from attempts at undue influence. In practice, though, the divide between judges and their donors isn’t opaque, and the system relies heavily on judicial candidates to police their own conduct.

While judicial candidates may not participate directly in fundraising efforts, it’s up to judges not to seek out public information on who chipped into their campaign, Limpert said. And even those who don’t may still be able to glean who contributed — particularly at fundraising events, where candidates openly mingle with potential donors. 

“It’s obviously unusual that you’re not allowed to know who contributes to your campaign or the amount they contribute, yet when you go to a fundraiser, you see people there that you know,” Limpert said. 

Guidelines also prevent administrators from assigning to a judge any cases involving donors —  lawyers and litigants alike — whose contributions could raise a conflict of interest. To meet that threshold, an individual lawyer or firm has to donate at least $2,500.

The conflict of interest stemming from a donation lasts only two years from the date it’s reported, or the date a victorious recipient assumes their post. As soon as that window is up, lawyers can argue cases before judges whose campaigns they helped bankroll. 

District Attorneys face even fewer restrictions. In New York, DA candidates can fundraise on their own behalf, and there’s no set contribution threshold that mandates a conflict of interest. 

A report from Columbia Law School found that, while instances of outright bribery through campaign donations are extremely rare, the lack of fundraising guidelines for district attorney candidates creates an opportunity for implicit bias in favor of contributors. At the very least, the lax rules create “the appearance of undue influence,” the report suggests.

The perception problem around campaign donations extends to judges, said Keith Bybee, a professor in the Syracuse University College of Law who studies judicial politics. 

Judges campaigning for election “run the risk they will be perceived not as an impartial jurist, but instead as an ordinary politician who we expect to represent the interests of their supporters once in office,” Bybee said. “That’s a tension that everybody running for judicial election has to confront in one way or another.”

Some proposed reforms would seek to change the way judges fund their campaigns, limiting the potential for conflicts of interest. One option, proposed by advocacy groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, would make campaigns for judges publicly funded. Meanwhile, the New York State Bar Association has pushed for making the state’s judges appointed, not elected, removing the need for fundraising entirely.

New York already appoints judges to its highest court, the Court of Appeals, with an independent commission vetting candidates who then advance to the governor for final consideration.

“We don’t have the problem that some states have, where special interests are pouring tons of money into the elections, because at least our state high court is appointed,” Green said. 

As long as judges are elected, though, they’ll need to fundraise from somewhere — and lawyers provide a ready supply of funds. 

Under the current system, “the burden really is on the judge” to not let those contributions become conflicts of interest, Limpert said. 

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