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Battle over Monroe County Public Defender appointment goes to court

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Monroe County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar, right, announced in July that she would refer Buffalo-based criminal defense lawyer Robert Fogg, left, to legislators as the next county public defender. - PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • Monroe County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar, right, announced in July that she would refer Buffalo-based criminal defense lawyer Robert Fogg, left, to legislators as the next county public defender.
Monroe County Legislature President Sabrina LaMar and Robert Fogg, her preferred candidate to lead the county Public Defender’s Office, have filed a lawsuit aimed at nullifying the appointment of Julie Cianca to lead the office.

Their petition argues that the meeting where a majority of legislators voted to appoint Cianca was held illegally and it asks a judge to void the resolution that “purports to appoint Cianca” for that reason.

Democrats joined with two Republicans to call for a Nov. 15 vote on Cianca’s appointment. The measure passed 15-1; LaMar and many Republicans did not attend.

“The meeting was held covertly and with haste, ostensibly to prevent full debate and participation by both the public and certain members of the Legislature who did not share the majority’s apparent goal to appoint Ms. Cianca as Public Defender,” reads the petition, which was filed Tuesday afternoon.

A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 16 in front of state Supreme Court Justice Gail Donofrio.

Candidates for the next Monroe County Public Defender, from left, Robert Fogg, Sara Valencia, Julie Cianca, and Andre Vitale, during a public forum Monday night. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Candidates for the next Monroe County Public Defender, from left, Robert Fogg, Sara Valencia, Julie Cianca, and Andre Vitale, during a public forum Monday night.
The Public Defender’s office has been without a permanent leader for nearly a year, and legislators have been fighting about who to appoint for nearly as long. LaMar, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, has said she wants a Black person to lead the office, whose clients are largely Black, and has thrown her support behind Buffalo-area attorney Robert Fogg. Republicans, with exceptions, have backed Fogg as well.



But Fogg does not have the support of a majority of legislators.

When the bipartisan majority asked the Legislature clerk to call the meeting, however, the LaMar and Legislature Parliamentarian Patrick Pardyjak rejected the request citing a previous vote by a Legislature committee where a measure to appoint Cianca as Public Defender failed. LaMar has said that under Legislature rules her appointment can’t be considered again until the next legislative session, which begins in 2024.

The bipartisan majority then issued the meeting notice through the county’s Communications Office.

“This is a simple democratic principle – the president and a minority of the Legislature do not have the power to thwart the will of the majority,” Democratic Minority Leader Yversha Roman said in a statement the day after the vote. “The clerk of the Legislature is duty-bound to conduct a meeting when directed by the majority, failing to do so led to the majority taking action,” said Minority Leader Yversha Roman.

RELATED: Epic fiasco derails Monroe County public defender selection

LaMar and Fogg are represented by Daniel Strollo, a former Monroe County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor who resigned when he came under fire for a social media post he made denigrating the memorial service for George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked protests against police brutality and racial injustice nationwide.

Since the vote, Cianca has been serving as head of the Public Defender’s Office, though the office’s website still lists Erik Teifke as its acting head.

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s deputy editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

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