OSWEGO — Elections may be the sport of democracies, but their outcomes have real consequences. The race for County Court judge here has come down to two heavyweights, one well-known throughout the county, the other lesser so but a serious contender nonetheless.
Gregory Oakes has been county district attorney for the past 10 years and was a prosecutor with the DA’s office for 10 years prior to his election. He has been re-elected twice to four-year terms.
Armen Nazarian is Town Court judge of the town of Schroeppel, first elected in 2013. He earned his bachelor of science degree from SUNY Oswego and his law degree from the University at Buffalo Law School. He is the owner of Nazarian Law, a law firm with offices in Oswego and Onondaga counties. He is the endorsed candidate of both the Republican and Conservative parties.
On June 22, Republican and Conservative party members will vote as to whether it will be Oakes or Nazarian who carries their party’s banner into the November election. But for all intents and purposes, these primaries may very well be the election, for there is no Democratic challenger for the retiring Judge Walter Hafner’s seat on the County Court. If one candidate wins both of these primaries, he will be the next County Court judge for the next 10 years.
Unlike candidates in all other elected positions, judicial candidates are very restricted in what they may say while campaigning. Candidates in all other political races may offer their opinions on all sorts of matters. Judicial candidates must stick to the facts. They are not allowed to offer opinions on pretty much anything.
Given these unique constraints, candidates’ responses to questions can seem somewhat wooden and emotionless. That, though, is a mirage. Both these men are quite passionate about this race and about the very serious responsibilities that define the role of County Court judge. Time and again they both made that very clear during the following interviews, and time and again reiterated that though they may have them, they cannot offer opinions.
“Unlike traditional candidates for legislative races where they can debate policies,”Greg Oakes began, “both of us are ethically bound to say we’re going to follow the law, we’re going to follow ethical rules and fairly and impartially apply the law. So really, for me, I think the difference, the critical factor for voters to look at, is in the experience in this particular area.
“The County Court judge presides over felony criminal cases. That can range from something as simple as a grand larceny to something as complex as a murder case and everything in between. I practiced as a prosecutor in County Court for the last 20 years, day in, day out, handling every type of felony case, presenting cases to a grand jury, hearings, trials, doing numerous trials, arguing cases on appeal. Personally, I’ve argued two cases in front of the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state. I was blessed to do that. Most attorneys never get the opportunity to do that in their career. I got to do it twice and was successful both times. Learned the substance of the law, learned the procedures, but, as I have been talking about with voters, more than the substantive knowledge, it’s gaining insight, knowing what it means to ask a victim to come in and testify, what it means to ask a 10-year-old little girl to testify about some of the worst things that could happen to a 10-year-old girl, to ask a victim of domestic violence to come into court and remembering there are people at the heart of each of these cases, and that’s victims and witnesses, that’s defendants. And through my experience throughout the last 20 years I’ve tried to be fair, always tried to keep an open mind, and even as a prosecutor, keeping an open mind to the idea that sometimes people can be falsely accused, some people can be overcharged, and I wanted to make sure the process is fair to get to the right results. And that experience and disposition truly makes me ideally suited for a judicial position like this, where the whole goal is to be fair and impartial.”
One of the obvious differences between the candidates is in their appraisal of their professional experience compared to their opponent’s. Oakes stressed his experience arguing cases in County Court.
“The vast majority of what town justices deal with are vehicle and traffic tickets, occasionally petit larcenies or DWIs, assaults,” Oakes said. “The majority of my experience has been prosecuting cases in County Court. And I’ve had the benefit of practicing before a number of different County Court judges. You see the approach used by different judges, and ultimately will be able to take the best from each of their practices and be able to employ that going forward.
“Hopefully, at the end of the day,” Oakes said, “voters will focus on experience and qualifications.”
While “at the end of the day,” this race could go his way, the dawn of Oakes’ day was decidedly cloudy. Though he received the Republican endorsement in all three of his previous runs for office, Oakes did not get that endorsement this time. Neither did he get the Conservative endorsement. Both of those went to his opponent.
“At that point,” Oakes said, “I was trying to decide whether I wanted to continue, so I didn’t reach out to be interviewed by the Conservative party members.”
He also had to decide whether it was realistic to believe he could still appear on the Conservative line, and force a primary there, without the party’s endorsement via the petitioning route, meaning obtaining 1,000 signatures of Conservative Party members on official designating petitions.
COVID stepped in in an odd way to make that decision easier. Due to the pandemic, the state reduced the number of signatures necessary to 300. Oakes ended up getting nearly 1,100 and has thereby earned the right to primary Nazarian for the Conservative line.
This could make for the possibility of a November election between the Republican and the Conservative candidates if Oakes wins one of the primaries and Nazarian wins the other. Oakes remains philosophical about the outcome.
“If the voters decide to go with the other candidate,” he said, “then I respect their choice. I’m fortunate to be in a position where if I were to lose the primary, I’ll still continue to be district attorney. My term will continue for another two-and-a-half years. My intention is to continue to serve the public and in the community. That’s what I’ve done for 20 years.”
The district attorney’s salary is one of the highest in the county. Asked whether winning election to the County Court would mean a pay cut for him, Oakes replied that his salary is designated to equal that of the County Court judge.
I casually remarked it would have been rather interesting if he had been willing to take a pay cut to become County Court judge. Oakes responded with a much more interesting story revealing something deeper.
“That’s how I started here at the DA’s office,” he said. “I had interned here during law school, wanted to come here right out of law school, but there wasn’t an opening. So I worked at a law firm down in Syracuse, and I’d been working there about a year when the then-(Oswego) District Attorney Dennis Hawthorne called me to see if I wanted to come to the DA’s office, and immediately I said yes. He asked, ‘Don’t you want to hear the pay or anything?’ and I said, ‘No, I want to do this.” He said, ‘Shouldn’t you talk to your wife first?’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, probably.’ Aside from agreeing to marry me and say ‘I do,’ the kindest words she ever said was ‘This is why you went to law school is to become a prosecutor, to serve the public, and if you don’t do it, you just wasted three years on law school and a lot of money.’ But, I took a 20% pay cut leaving the law firm to come here to the DA’s office. And after I’d been here about a year or so, and was feeling the pinch of that 20% pay cut, my wife and I both got a job at Applebee’s in Clay on Route 31 back before it was all way developed. There was basically Great Northern Mall and across the bridge there was Applebee’s, and that was pretty much it at the time, aside from Wegmans. For almost three years, I waited tables every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday so I could be a prosecutor Monday through Friday. I was an assistant DA then, and I would leave here at four o’clock every Friday to get down and start a shift at Clay at 4:30, and after a few months of being there, my wife and I basically became the closers, the last two, so we would work until 1 in the morning and then clean up, go back and most Saturdays were doubles, so then on Sundays we’d work, then Monday I was back here. Did that for almost three years. Deputies and troopers would come in and jokingly tease about ‘I got the ADA bringing me wings and beer,’ and I’d say, ‘You guys bring me charges all week, and I bring you wings on Friday. I guess that’s fair.’ There’s honor in work.”
There’s no denying the work ethic of either of these candidates. And there’s no denying Oakes’ philosophical attitude.
“The voters have elected me three times to be district attorney,” he said. “Each of those times, the voters have endorsed me because they trust me and they know me to do what’s right and to do what’s fair. I’ve been out knocking on doors, I’ve been out almost every single night since the beginning of March, I’ve talked with over a thousand people so far, and I’ve had incredible reception from people who’ve been appreciative of the work that I’ve done and, but for a handful of people, have been very supportive. So, it’s the endorsement of the voters that matters to me, not the political party. Through my last nine-and-a-half years as DA, I have been nonpolitical. I have been nonpartisan. And I’ve conducted my office in that way and in the way in which we decide cases, in the way we in which we operate the office. I’ve had a number of people comment to me they recognize I’ve been nonpartisan and apolitical. And that’s the way it should be as a prosecutor, and that’s the way it should be as a judge.”
Although voters often base their vote on the differences between candidates, it can be reassuring at times when the candidates agree. And on the issues of nonpartisanship and impartiality, they absolutely agree.
“That impartiality I think is one of the most important factors in any good judge,” Armen Nazarian began, “whether they be in Town Court or County Court. It doesn’t matter how the judge feels about a statute, whether it be bail reform, or whether it be the SAFE act, or any of those things. The judge’s feelings cannot be taken into account when they’re sitting down and doing their job. So, if somebody is found guilty, it doesn’t matter how I feel about it, I’m obligated as the judge that was elected to serve in that position to apply that law, whether I like it or not.
“A good judge will sit down and really take all of the factors into account that have come in from both sides,” he continued. “That’s my philosophy of what a judge is.
“I think I’ve demonstrated myself in Town Court to be as impartial as they come. I’ve served as a defense attorney protecting the rights of the accused, and I’ve also sent people to jail. It really is a totality of the circumstances, and I think I’ve demonstrated myself to be someone who can take all those factors into account when you’re sitting down and deciding a very serious, maybe the most serious thing that’s ever happened in this person’s life, how they’re going to be sentenced in a felony charge.”
Serious may be a key word as applied to Nazarian and his judicial philosophy. He takes his responsibility very seriously, both to the public and to the Constitution.
“Any judge,” he said, “a Town Court judge, a County Court judge, they take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the state of New York and the United States. The number one thing I get asked about is the Second Amendment and the Constitution. I grew up in a very conservative home of gun owners, Second Amendment supporters. Beyond that though, people like my father feel very strongly about the Constitution, and it is ingrained in me, and I feel very strongly that, of course, a lot has changed since the Constitution was written. But the reasons why those things are in there, the reasons why it’s the second amendment, or the reasons why it’s the first amendment, have not changed, and they protect us. They’re there to protect us. So, to the extent that I can, I intend to be someone that’s very protective of those things and always has an eye on protecting those rights no matter what statutory law overlays them that I may have to apply. And I think that background and that perspective, there’s nothing partial about it, and I think it’s a contributing reason why, in a pretty intensive process of being vetted by the Republican and the Conservative committees in the county, they voted to endorse me. So, that’s the way I approach the Constitution and the law.”
Nazarian seems to have made his strong belief in and strict interpretation of the Second Amendment almost the hallmark of his campaign, and it jives well with his societal view of present-day Oswego County.
“I think that the County Court judgeship, the person going in there, needs to be very acutely aware of what’s going on in the community,” Nazarian said. “I can tell you from my perspective as a judge and an attorney and going door-to-door now for however many months, there’s really three things that are going on in this county that I see as three pillars of a triangle that all kind of go together. The first is that there’s a very serious opiate epidemic. There are a lot of people, people in our friends and family, people in our community, struggling with addiction, and it kind of goes to the second piece which is, with the COVID epidemic, those people have been in some instances offending, breaking the law to satisfy an addiction, the horrible addiction that they suffer from, and these cases have been put off, due to really nobody’s fault. There’s been a huge backlog in the court system that some of these people have come to understand that the consequences for what they’re doing will be put off for some time. They can drag them out. And the third piece is that now we’ve got a lot of people in this community that feel very protective because now there’s a population of people out there that weren’t out there before that are breaking the law and are potentially dangerous. And this concern has arisen amongst people for their Second Amendment rights and their ability to protect themselves and protect their families.”
And that led Nazarian to remind voters of another possible duty of the County Court judge.
“The County Court judge can be made the licensing authority for pistol permits,” Nazarian noted. “And every licensing authority absolutely must, and I absolutely will, unless and until they’re ever changed by the Legislature, have to apply that series of statutes when looking at those applications. But, a judge in that position has a significant amount of discretion. So, in looking at those applications, it’s my interpretation of the Constitution and those statutes. I think you want someone with a clear understanding of the Second Amendment, why it is the second amendment, why it’s there, and then you look at has this person fulfilled their requirements set up by the Legislature. And if they have fulfilled their requirements, then the federal Constitution kicks in, and it’s kind of out of my hands. It’s not really my place at that point to stand in the way of people exercising their Second Amendment.”
Of course, there’s more to a judge than his or her views on the Second Amendment.
“The Town Court judge, contrary to what others might believe or say, handles a lot more than traffic tickets and case intake,” Nazarian said. “They handle the entire life of misdemeanor cases from the beginning of the case until the end.
“Ultimately, when a case comes to the end,” he continued, “the sentencing, the imposition of the punishment, that is at the discretion of the judge. And that’s something that I’ve got a lot of experience doing, and I don’t take very lightly. That’s something that will keep you up at night. That’s something that you want somebody approaching with their mind and trying to be fair to both sides. It’s something that I take very seriously. To deprive someone of their liberty, potentially incarcerate them, and as I said, I don’t take it lightly. I try to do it in a way I can always take pride in, and then people in my community feel secure and that they’ve been treated right in the courtroom, whether they be the victim, law enforcement, or even the defendant.
“And that experience is something that I have unique to offer to this position in seeking to sit as County Court judge. I talked a moment ago about misdemeanors. Felonies are handled in the County Court and up to sentencing, the procedures are almost identical. The pre-trial procedures for motions and hearings and all those things, I’ve presided over thousands of those cases. And when you ultimately get to where they’re either guilty of something after a trial, or they pled guilty to something, the County Court judge could be sending people to state prison, which is a whole different place from the county jail, for the rest of their lives. So, to be able to maintain the right temperament, the right composure, impartially apply the law as it’s written in each case, that’s a skill that I’ve worked and developed in Town Court that I’m really looking to bring to the County Court judgeship.”
Nazarian frequently emphasized his experience, just as Oakes emphasized his, and sees it as a reason he received the Republican and Conservative endorsements.
“I think I received those endorsements based on my experience as a judge,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know that the County Court judge doesn’t just preside over serious criminal court cases. They can also be put by the district into the Family Court. It’s very common for the district to use the County Court judge as an acting Family Court judge. Family Court has a very different set of procedures and rules and whole body of law. It’s very different from criminal law. A County Court judge can also be made an acting Supreme Court judge, which handles civil cases. I have a lot of experience in the civil arena. So, I was the candidate that has years of experience in all those areas, criminal law, civil law, and family law and could go in on day one as a County Court judge, which the state has referred to as the multi-hat judge, and serve in all those areas no matter where they decide to put them.”
And lastly, Nazarian re-emphasized what he considers a judge’s most important attribute.
“Judges need to be impartial,” he said. “I think that’s the number one, most important, thing you want in a judge.”