Judge Napierski out with Dems, Clenahan in as November pick

— Photo from Christine Napierski

Christine Napierski was chosen by the town board in April to replace disgraced judge Richard Sherwood. The board cited her even temperament and her experience in trial law, negotiation, and mediation.

GUILDERLAND — Christine Napierski was chosen in April over 13 other candidates to replace town justice Richard Sherwood who pleaded guilty this week to felony charges.

Announcing her appointment, Supervisor Peter Barber said that she was selected for her depth of experience in trial law, mediation, and negotiations, as well as for her even temperament and her ability to meet the scheduling demands of the job, which requires being available 24 hours a day, every third week.

Napierski trained for several weeks and began serving at the end of April.

But this week, the Guilderland Democratic Committee decided unanimously to back not Napierski, but Bryan M. Clenahan, for the post in November. Clenahan was one of the 13 other candidates passed over in April in favor of Napierski.

Napierski wants to stay in the post and plans to run.

A Democrat, she was appointed to her post by the unanimous vote of a town board with four Democrats and one Republican.

Napierski told The Enterprise in an email that she is currently serving as a town justice so there is an ethical restriction on what a judge can and cannot say during an election.

“I am running for election and I am a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, the Conservative Party nomination, and the Independence Party nomination,” Napierski wrote. “It is my understanding the Democratic candidate for town justice will be selected by a vote of the enrolled Democratic voters at the Democratic Party caucus, which is scheduled for July 26. It is my hope that I will be nominated by the Democratic Party at the upcoming caucus.”

Albany Conservative Party Chairman Richard Stack said Wednesday that the party is endorsing Napierski.

“I’ve done this for 21 years, and I’ll tell you, this is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Stack said. The board first “voted and committed themselves to her,” he said, and then “turned around rescinded her appointment.

“The committee voted in unison, even Peter Barber,” Stack said.

“The question is,” he said rhetorically, “what has she done wrong sitting on the bench, handling the people’s business in Guilderland? Has she been punctual? Has she moved her court calendar along on a steady basis? Has she attended the necessary schooling that goes along with the judicial process? Have there been any complaints from the prosecution or from the defense about her way of handling trials? I read the paper; I don’t see anything where people are claiming heavy-handedness or wrong-doing in the court system.”

The Guilderland Democratic Committee’s job was to pick the person who was most qualified and most electable, said acting Chairman Jacob Crawford.

The town board filled another vacancy in April: Gregory Wier was named interim highway superintendent. Weir has the committee’s backing for the November election.

Napierski is a founding partner of Napierski, VanDenburgh, Napierski & O’Connor, at 286 Washington Avenue Extension. She has worked for 25 years as a trial attorney in the area of civil liability, defending cases that include automobile negligence, medical malpractice, and municipal liability, according to her biography on her firm’s website.

She has tried complex cases to verdict, negotiated major settlements, represented clients at mediations and arbitrations, argued appeals before the Appellate Division, and completed training in accordance with New York State Unified Court System requirements to become a mediator. Since 2012, she has been designated a Super Lawyer in upstate New York in the area of medical malpractice defense.

Clenahan is an attorney; an Albany County legislator representing part of Guilderland; and counsel to Diane Savino, a Democratic senator from Long Island.

He would resign from his post as legislator if elected town justice, he said.

For the town of Guilderland, he has previously served as town prosecutor, assistant town attorney, and zoning-board attorney.

Clenahan said he really enjoyed working in town court, calling it “one of the most rewarding and interesting and challenging work I’ve ever done in my career … I would be incredibly excited to be able to serve the town court again. I think I have a great diversity of legal experience and experience in the court.”

He has long been actively involved in the Guilderland Democratic Committee — for about 21 years — while Napierski has not, he said.

Clenahan is the son-in-law of sitting Guilderland town Justice Denise Randall. Clenahan is married to Randall’s daughter, Griffan D. P. Randall. He is of counsel to the Randall Law Firm, which is run by Denise Randall and her husband, Robert Randall.

“I think that every candidate should be judged on their merits, their abilities, and their experience. I think that’s all a candidate should be judged on,” Clenahan said.

Clenahan is also being endorsed by the Independence Party, Crawford said. Clenahan added that he has the endorsement of the Working Families Party too.

The Guilderland Democratic Committee wanted the candidate who was best qualified and who knew how to organize and run a campaign, Crawford.

Yes, he said, the town board chose Napierski in April, but that process and the one undertaken by the 60-member committee “are two very different processes,” he said. The town board’s process involved finding someone to fill the post until the end of this year, he said. The committee’s goal was to find someone to endorse, he said.

No one spoke at the committee meeting in favor of Napierski, except her, Crawford said.

The Guilderland Democratic Committee’s interview committee interviewed three candidates: Clenahan, Napierski, and Paul Pastore, who is an attorney and a current town-board member. The interview board then recommended Clenahan to the executive committee and to the full committee, Crawford said.

The interview committee consisted, Crawford said, of chairman John Wemple; planning-board members Thomas Robert, James Cohen, and Mickey Cleary; zoning-board member Gustavo Santos; deputy receiver of taxes Amanda Beedle; and himself.

Barber’s view

Supervisor Barber confirmed that he had not said anything at the meeting to recommend Napierski. He emphasized that the appointment process was deliberately kept nonpolitical, while the endorsement process is political.

Barber had specifically mentioned temperament several times, at the April town-board meeting when he annnounced Napierski’s appointment, as an important qualification for a judge.

No one offered any thoughts — positive or negative — to The Enterprise on Clenahan’s temperament.

Asked specifically to describe Clenahan’s temperament, Barber said, “Bryan has an excellent temperament. He’s a very good listener and always polite, and careful with his choice of words.”

Barber said, “You’ve got to remember, this is an unprecedented process we’re going through right now.” He echoed Crawford in saying there’s a difference between the appointment and the election processes.

For the appointment process, Barber said, “We knew there was a pressing need to get a third judge appointed. We needed to make sure we not only got a qualified person, but somebody who was available … It’s a very demanding job, in terms of time.”

All 14 people who applied for the job were “qualified on paper,” Barber said, but the town also needed to make sure their full-time positions would allow them to be available to the town 24 hours a day, every third week.

Candidates also have to have flexibility, in terms of being able to get over to the court on very short notice, for arraignments and other court proceedings, Barber said.

“We didn’t get into any party backing, party affiliation; we didn’t ask about their fundraising,” Barber said. “We let people know that, ‘We’re going to appoint you for an eight- or nine-month period, but then, if you want to get involved in the political process, you’re going to have to find your own way on that one.’”

Barber said his understanding of the endorsement process is that it’s all based on electability, and that he himself was not on either the Democratic committee’s interview or executive committees. He doesn’t know what the thought process of those committees was, he said.

Also, the election process gives candidates “more time to adjust their schedule,” Barber said. “In March and April, we wanted to get someone in very quickly,” he said.

People who may not be able to find the time in their schedules to take on the interim job can sometimes find the time, when looking at a four-year post, Barber said.

While interviewing candidates to replace Sherwood, Barber said, the town board made it clear to applicants that they would not have six or seven months to change their current jobs. “We wanted somebody that could step in immediately, and Christine could, because she has her law office and is a partner … She’s hit the ground running.”

Barber confirmed that no one at the committee meeting said anything about Napierski. “There are 60-some-odd members of the committee, and anybody could have made a motion for Christine,” he said. “It’s an open process.”

The nominee will be decided at the July caucus at Tawasentha Park, Barber said, concluding, “Whoever brings the most supporters will get the nomination.”

Republican Party  

The Republicans have selected Stephen R. Chesley to run for town justice, said Guilderland Republican Committee Chairman Douglas Breakell.

Chesley was one of the 14 candidates who applied for the job in April, Breakell said, and one of four people that the GOP committee interviewed for possible endorsement.

Breakell said Chesley is an attorney with experience in many different areas of law. He is one of five partners with the law firm Sullivan, Keenan, Oliver & Violando in Albany and he lives in Guilderland.

“We want to see the best candidate that’s going to move our town forward and serve the public with integrity,” Breakell said.

Breakell said that Chesley is not active in town Republican politics at this point, although he is interested in getting involved in the future. Breakell said involvement in town politics is not a prerequisite to running for judge.

Small parties  

Albany County Independence Party Chairman Paul Caputo confirmed that his party is planning to endorse Clenahan.

The Independence Party nominee is decided by primary, he said.

It is the responsibility of anyone wishing to run on the Independence Party line to contact the party and request an interview, Caputo said, noting that the party will interview anyone who wants to run.

The only person who contacted the party this year was Clenahan, he said, and Clenahan was the only one interviewed.

“As a matter of courtesy,” Caputo said, “we let the major parties’ — the Democratic and Republican parties’ — chairpersons know that we are scheduling interviews. But we don’t go out, and we don’t seek anyone out.”

Clenahan is going to be “a very good judge; he’s going to be tough and fair, everything a judge should be,” Caputo said.

The interviewers were impressed by his credentials, Caputo said, including time on the zoning board, as an attorney, and in the courts.

Another thing that impressed Caputo, he said, was Clenahan’s attention to detail throughout his time on the zoning board.

Caputo said that, as far as he is concerned, the party’s process is closed. “If Ms. Napierski wanted our line, I imagine she would have contacted me or somebody in our party,” he said.

Stack of the Conservative Party said that Napierski brings integrity to the bench, which he said is much-needed after the “real shocker” of what residents recently learned about the judge she replaced, Richard Sherwood. (See related story.)

Stack said Napierski is a mother and, he said, “a hard-working girl,” and noted that she is a lifelong resident of the town, established in the community.

The endorsement mechanism in Guilderland is set up, Stack said, to favor politically connected Democrats. “Nobody else need apply,” he said.

Stack said his party’s way of selecting a nominee — by primary — is fairer than a caucus.

At the party’s caucus, will people be required to show their credentials as enrolled Democrats, Stack asked, or will officials “just let anybody drive up and take a seat.” Hands should be counted, he said, instead of letting the event turn into “a shouting match,” in which the winner is decided by which side is louder.

Experts weigh in

Patrick M. Connors, a professor at Albany Law School, said he is not aware of any authority on the question of whether there is any problem — including a problem of appearances — with more than one member of the same family serving as judge in the same court.

Matthew Clyne, Democratic commissioner of the Albany County Board of Elections, said there was nothing to prevent members of the same family taking justice posts in the same court. He pointed to the example of brothers Peter Lynch and Michael Lynch, who are both Albany County Supreme Court judges. There are others who have run while having family members who are involved politically, he said.

Napierski has two options for running, if she does not get the Democratic Party line, Clyne said: She can seek the minor-party lines, or she can circulate an independent nominating petition. In that case, he said, her name would appear on the ballot in November, but it would be at the bottom, below the lines of all the parties.

“You can effectively do something like that in a village,” Clyne said, “but in a town the size of Guilderland, it’s a pretty tall order.”

Corrected on June 15, 2018: We removed a quotation from Richard Stack, asserting that Bryan Clenahan has “never had  job outside the government” since, actually, Clenahan has had several jobs in private practice.

Also, we took out Stack’s statement that Napierski is a “single” mother because, although she raised an adopted child for years on her own, she married in 2017.

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