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Four candidates in running for two state Supreme Court judgeships – Democrat & Chronicle

The eight-county regional judicial district will have two judges — one a Monroe County Family Court judge and the other a Yates County Court judge — vying with two criminal defense lawyers from Monroe County for two open judgeships.
The two judges — Yates County Court Judge Jason Cook and Monroe Family Court Judge James Vazzana — both have experience in Supreme Court as acting state Supreme Court justices. The two criminal defense lawyers — Roman Misula and Maroun Ajaka — have practices which often include the “assigned counsel” representation of indigent people.
Misula emigrated to the United States when young from Ukraine; Ajaka emigrated to the United States from Lebanon as an adult after receiving a law degree in Lebanon.
Elections 2022:Newly appointed judge and local lawyer vie for lone Monroe County Family Court judgeship
The top two vote-getters will win the seats, one of which was created after Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation that added justices to each of the state’s judicial districts. The regional 7th Judicial District is comprised of eight counties — Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne and Yates. The state Supreme Court handles criminal and civil trials.
Vazzana and Cook are running on Republican and Conservative Party lines in a district known for GOP strength. Misula and Ajaka are on the Democratic line.
Vazzana, 57, was elected to Family Court in 2015. For the past three years he has been the supervising judge for the district’s integrated domestic violence courtroom, which allows civil and criminal matters stemming from alleged domestic abuse to be heard in one court.
The specialized court, or IDV court as it’s called, allows individuals to have everything from criminal allegations to matrimonial and custody disputes decided by a single judge. “The only way you can qualify for IDV court is to have both a civil and criminal component,” Vazzana said.
Before the advent of IDV court, Vazzana said, individuals were often having to juggle multiple court dates in differing courtrooms. Monroe County was one of the early tests for the IDV courts, which are now used across the state.
Vazzana said he is already well acquainted with state Supreme Court responsibilities, working some days in that court and others in Family Court, he said.
“I’m on the bench every day,” he said. Even at the advent of the pandemic, Vazzana was one of the designated judges to hear matters that could not be delayed.
The pandemic, Vazzana said, has added stressors within households and the impact is showing in courtrooms.
“People react differently under stress,” he said. “There’s certainly a lot more volume (in the courts) because of that, because of the confinement.”
In his private practice before his 2015 election, Vazzana was an attorney for individuals with Family Court or matrimonial issues. He was in private practice for 25 years and a managing partner at the Chamberlain D’Amanda law firm.
Vazzana, who lives in Penfield, grew up in the city’s 10th Ward.
In its judicial evaluations, the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys, or GRAWA, rated Vazzana its second highest rating of “well qualified.”
Candidates who participate in the GRAWA evaluation process are rated “exceptionally well qualified,” “well qualified,””qualified,” or “not qualified.”
Vazzana received the highest rating of “highly qualified” from the Rochester Black Bar Association, or RBBA, which also rated him as “moderately sensitive.”
According to RBBA, “candidates receive a sensitivity rating of ‘highly sensitive’, ‘moderately sensitive’ or ‘some sensitivity’ based on the candidates’ demonstrated sensitivity to and awareness of issues impacting ethnic minorities, women, and other historically marginalized populations.”
For more information visit judgevazzana.com.
Like Vazzana, Cook has also been in the role of acting state Supreme Court justice, a position he has held for the past four years. He was elected to Yates County Court six years ago.
He previously served as the county’s district attorney and was a prosecutor in the DA’s office before that.
In Yates County, he has juggled responsibilities including Family Court and Surrogate’s Court judgeships. “I want to facilitate speedier resolutions of cases,” he said. “I recognize from being a judge that people sometimes feel in limbo.”
Cook, a graduate of Dickinson School of Law, is also now the supervising judge for town and village courts in part of the 7th Judicial District.
Cook, 52, noted that Justice Thomas Moran, from Livingston County, and Craig Doran, from Ontario County, are now the only state Supreme Court judges not from Monroe County. Should he be elected, another portion of the sprawling district will be represented on the bench, he said.
Cook, who is the fifth generation of a beef farming family, eyed labor law when younger but decided “I prefer litigating to contract negotiations or things of that nature.”
As an acting state Supreme Court justice, Cook said the expansive reach and variety of cases is something he’s accustomed to confronting.
“You can hear a criminal case one day and a medical malpractice and a personal car injury the next,” he said.
Cook did not participate in the GRAWA or RBBA evaluation processes.
For more information, visit judgejasoncook.com.
Defense lawyer Roman Misula acknowledges that, if elected, his journey to a judgeship would be untraditional. In fact, his journey to a legal career was also untraditional.
Legal mentors have told him he should consider a judgeship, he said. “When this opportunity came along I said I think I have a unique background and the tools to do the job,” said Misula, 38, of Irondequoit.
“I was born in Ukraine and came here as a refugee when I was 9,” he said. The family was on what is known as “parole” status and ineligible for many benefits, he said.
“You come in and you work to be able to stay,” he said. “My father was our breadwinner. He knew the language a little bit.”
The hardships were severe for his father, who took his own life. His mother, who did not speak English, began working in labor and factory jobs to keep the family afloat. “I got kicked out of school several times (and) had some police contact.” Misula said.
His mother’s tireless work ethic was an inspiration, however, and he decided on a career in criminal justice. Poor eyesight, even with Lasik surgery, derailed his thoughts to be a police officer, so he did an internship at the Monroe County DA’s Office. “I loved what they were doing,” he said.
That further motivated him to pursue law, and he graduated from Liberty University School of Law in 2011. He returned to the Monroe County DA’s Office, eventually prosecuting white-collar fraud.
In 2018, Misula went into private practice and is now a partner at the  Ganguly Brothers law firm. “I reached a point where I craved that well-roundedness (as a lawyer),” he said. “I do a lot of indigent defense now (from) the assigned counsel panel,” he said, speaking of local lawyers called upon to represent indigent people when there is a conflict in the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office.
He has also handled civil litigation with his private practice. “I’ve done virtually everything a Supreme Court justice can do. Clearly my background is very heavy in criminal law.”
GRAWA rated Misula as “well qualified” and RBBA rated him as “qualified” and “moderately sensitive,”
For more information, visit romanmisula.com.
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Ajaka, 55, received his first law degree in Lebanon, before his emigration to the United States.
“I grew up in a war,” he said. He came to the United States in the late 1980s, and was able to secure a “protected status” immigration status. Later, after moving from New York City to Rochester, he secured green card status for his work as a chef at Basha.
Ajaka wanted to embark on a law career and found that he could advance to the Bar examination with 24 additional credits. While working, he attended the University at Buffalo School of Law and completed the necessary caseload.
Ajaka was admitted to the Bar in 2002, pleased that he did well on the exam after the trajectory of his life from Lebanon to western New York. “An American friend didn’t pass the Bar,” he remembered.
“I appreciate the law more than someone who has lived here,” he said. The judicial system “… is not perfect, but I feel it’s the best in the world.”
Ajaka’s practice is a mix of criminal defense work, often for indigent people, and representation of children in family court. “It’s about half and half, criminal cases and family court,” he said.
Ajaka is also part of the county’s “assigned counsel” panel.
Ajaka said his unique experience and his appreciation of the country’s judicial system makes him a fit for state Supreme Court.
Like other candidates, he has been traveling through the eight counties, leading up to the vote.
“I feel like I’m already a winner, meeting so many people,” he said.
Ajaka was rated “qualified” by GRAWA and “not qualified” with “some sensitivity” by RBBA.
For more information, visit marounajaka.com.
(Includes reporting from the Auburn Citizen.)

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