This is the second 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.
Melinda McGunnigle wanted to be a prosecutor from the time Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick spoke in her 10th grade class at Corcoran High School.
“I basically harassed them until they gave me an internship here as a first year undergrad,” McGunnigle said.
She never looked back: McGunnigle interned at the office every winter and summer break until she graduated from Boston College. Then she interned in DA’s offices all over Western New York, including in Monroe County, Erie County and Niagara County before taking a job as a prosecutor in Nassau County.
McGunnigle’s spent 22 years working in district attorney’s offices, 15 of those in Onondaga County and the last five as the chief of Onondaga County’s homicide bureau.
But for the first time earlier this year, she’s considering leaving the DA’s office and her dream job.
“I’ve just been a prosecutor for so long,” McGunnigle said. “The job has changed over the years. I’m just ready for something a little different.”
McGunnigle, a Republican, is one of four candidates for Onondaga County Court judge and one of two candidates with experience as a prosecutor. She would be the first woman elected to the county court bench if voters choose her for the job.
McGunnigle grew up in Strathmore, played baseball in South Side Little League and graduated from Corcoran High School. She is the only candidate who grew up in the city of Syracuse, which she said has helped her connect with witnesses as a prosecutor.
The county court bench has drawn heavily from the DA’s office. Both sitting county court judges, Matthew Doran and Gordon Cuffy, spent time as prosecutors in Onondaga County. Recently retired judge Stephen Dougherty also served as a prosecutor.
McGunnigle said that experience would benefit her on the bench — she’s tried more than 50 cases in her career, and about five to seven per year.
“I have so much trial experience and experience handling cases I would preside over,” McGunnigle said.
Though for decades her role in the courtroom has been that of prosecutor securing convictions, McGunnigle said she was prepared to fill a new role, as a judge who treats defendants fairly and ethically.
As an example of her commitment to fairness, she said she has tried cases in which she has asked for lesser sentences if it’s apparent the defendant doesn’t deserve the maximum based on the facts.
McGunnigle said she’s most interested in a judgeship as her next career move. She didn’t think she’d want to run for district attorney if Fitzpatrick declines to run for the position again in the next 10 years.
“I just like to work. I like to do my job, and I’m not very political,” McGunnigle said. “Obviously, this is a whole new experience for me, having to run, and obviously DA is a much more political position and it’s every four years.”
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 don’t like to look at it as power. If elected, I will be somebody that’s entrusted to make the right decisions on behalf of our community. I find it humbling. The job that I have now, I find it rewarding that I’m helping victims. And I think even as a judge, I’ll still be in a way helping victims. I won’t be their advocate, but by imposing sentences that are fair and just, I’ll be helping victims. But in the same sense, helping defendants where I see that they just need some help and need some guidance and a long prison sentence isn’t going to do any good. I know that I will be able to look at things objectively and be very fair.”
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