Wednesday 5 October 2022
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Karen Bailey Turner’s Election to Monroe County Court Makes History

Patti Singer

Karen Bailey Turner is the first person of color elected to Monroe County Court.
Photo provided by Karen Bailey Turner

Karen Bailey Turner tempered the election night celebration. Her margin was slim, and the votes still were unofficial.

She received the second-highest number, enough to give her a piece of history.

Turner, 53, became the first black person elected Monroe County Court judge.

“I think my being on the bench sends a message that the court is more inclusive,” Turner said the week after the election.

Turner, running on the Democratic and Working Families lines, received 82,620 votes, or 25.79% percent in the four-person race, according to the Monroe County Board of Elections.

Michael Dollinger, running on the Democratic, Libertarian, Independence and Serve America Movement lines, led the field with 27.51% percent. Incumbent John DeMarco, on the Republican and five other lines, received 24.66% percent. Kyle Steinbach, running on the Republican and Conservative lines, received 22.02%.

Absentee and affidavit ballots will be opened and counted on Nov. 21, but they are not expected to make a difference in this race. The certification of the general election returns by the Monroe County Board of Elections will be sent to the state Board of Elections on Nov. 29. The state Board of Canvassers will meet on Dec. 15 to certify the general election.

The swearing-in is scheduled for noon, Dec. 18 at the Hall of Justice and the term begins Jan. 1.

Turner, who holds a master’s degree in public communication from American University in Washington, D.C., and a law degree from SUNY Buffalo, has practiced criminal law for more than 16 years. As an assistant public defender and in private practice, she has represented defendants on a range of charges in town, city and county courts and in state Supreme Court.

Her current position is associate attorney at the Mental Hygiene Legal Service in the state Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department. She represents mentally ill patients in hospitals, psychiatric centers and prisons and alleged incapacitated persons (often elderly and vulnerable) in guardianship proceedings.

Turner said her professional experience combined with her life story made her suited for the bench.

She was born in England and grew up in the West Indies.

“There’s never been a Caribbean immigrant on the bench,” she said. “There are no people of color. You look at all the people that come into our courts. It’s a wide variety, which is very reflective of the diversity in Monroe County.”

Other women have served as Monroe County Court judges. Last year, Fatimat Reid was elected to Family Court.

“I have a different sensitivity to issues that others in the mainstream may not pick up,” Turner said.

Over the years, she said she’d considered running for a judicial seat and briefly explored an opportunity in Rochester City Court. She said she could make more of a difference in Monroe County Court, in part because there had not been a Black person on the bench.

“I just thought given my experience and that I’m a person of color, that I’m a woman, there’s two seats available and I need to get one of them.”
She said being on the bench provides an opportunity to advocate for the rule of law and for justice. “How many times have you wanted to make a decision that affects people’s lives?”

Turner talked about advocacy in terms of judicial discretion, and not in the sense of legislating from the bench.

“We have the presumption of innocence, the prosecution has to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, evidence against the defendant must be legally obtained,” she said. I think at each stage of the process, that’s where judicial discretion comes in to play.”

She said the potential expense of a campaign – the ballpark estimate is between $150,000 and $200,000 – concerned her. “That’s one of the things that takes it out of consciousness of minorities or people who are not to the manor born. It takes a lot of money.”

Turner said that her team brought her candidacy in for less than six figures.

This story was updated to reflect correct vote totals for Turner and party lines for Dollinger.