This is the third of four stories about candidates for Onondaga County Court. Voters can pick two on their ballot. Two judges — Thomas Miller and Stephen Dougherty — announced their plans to retire earlier this year, opening up two spots on the bench. The elected judges will serve 10-year terms.
Annaleigh Porter thought she was going to be a civil rights attorney. She interned at the NAACP and counted Karen DeCrow, a famed leader of the women’s movement, among her mentors.
But during her internship, she sat through proceedings at Baltimore City Court and saw people shackled on minor charges. It was there she witnessed the criminal justice system’s racial disparities, she said.
So after more than a decade of pursuing more experience in criminal defense law, Porter decided earlier this year to run for Onondaga County Court judge.
“You’re dealing with who’s searched and who’s pulled over for what traffic infraction, and disparities in sentencing, and disparities in the way victims of crimes are treated and heard,” Porter said, “This is it. This is what I was after without knowing it. Really working hard and being part of a system that works.”
Porter, a Democrat, grew up in Lyons in Wayne County. She moved to Syracuse for law school. Her background is exclusively in criminal defense law. Porter has worked with former defense lawyer Jim McGraw, who represented former Syracuse Mayor Lee Alexander on criminal charges in the 1980s. She considers prominent local defense lawyers Emil Rossi and Ed Menkin to be mentors.
Her focus on defense sets her apart from the two county court judges now on the bench, Matthew Doran and Gordon Cuffy.
Porter would also be the first woman to sit on the county court bench.
“We’ve had a great judiciary in our history,” she said. “But I think it’s not representative of the people who appear before them, whether it’s attorneys or litigants.”
Porter worked for a short time as a chemical dependency counselor after graduating from the College of Charleston. She also works as a Title IX hearing officer at Syracuse University, where she presides over sexual assault and harassment cases.
Porter said her experience as a defense lawyer has taught her how to relay dense, difficult information to clients who are going through a difficult time.
“There is value in having varied experience,” Porter said. “I’ve been able to get that with the work I do at Syracuse University … by representing both those who are victims and those who are complainants, but also being the trier of fact and fairly adjudicating over [those] cases.”
One question we asked every candidate
As a county court judge you would have a lot of power over people’s lives. How do you grapple with that power?
“I think you do not take it lightly is the first thing. Everyday when you go into work, when you put on that robe, the weight of the world is on your shoulders and you have to treat it as such. You never let up on the seriousness of the situation. That’s going to take extra time and that’s going to take an emotional toll, a mental toll. You’re going to have to compartmentalize when you go home to your family. But I don’t think you lose sight of the gravity of the situation, you put in extra hours researching an issue. You have multiple appearances to make sure it’s hammered out and litigated and researched. Because people can deal with bad news and bad situations. People are resilient. But people deserve to be treated with respect and part of that comes with putting in the time, the care and the compassion with how you deal with everyone in the courtroom, from the accused to the person who has been victimized by criminal conduct.”