By Peter H. Milliken
Two candidates with locally well-known last names, both with more than two decades of law practice experience, are running in the May 6 Democratic primary to become a judge on the 7th District Court of Appeals.
Anthony Donofrio, who is recommended by the Mahoning County Bar Association and whose candidacy is endorsed by the Democratic Party, is a brother of Judge Gene Donofrio of the 7th District Court of Appeals and a son of Judge Joseph Donofio, who is retired from that court.
But Anthony Donofrio, who is now deputy Youngstown law director, has never run for an elected office before.
David Engler, who is in private law practice, is a former Youngstown city councilman and a former Mahoning County commissioner and a current member of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center Board.
The bar association has given Engler a “not recommended” rating.
Donofrio and Engler are seeking a seat on the four-judge appeals court, which is being vacated by Judge Joseph J. Vukovich, who is not seeking re-election to a fourth six-year term.
The Democratic primary winner will face a Republican, Judge Carol Ann Robb of Columbiana County Municipal Court in the Nov. 4 general election.
The Youngstown-based 7th District Court of Appeals has an eight-county jurisdiction — Mahoning, Columbiana, Belmont, Carroll, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe and Noble counties.
Mahoning is the most-populous county in the district, and the county where all four current 7th District appeals judges live.
Anthony Donofrio said he is well-qualified to be an appellate judge because of his experience in a broad range of areas of law heard by the appeals court.
He said he has practiced law in almost all the courts in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties, and has worked on cases that went before the 7th District Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court.
“I’ve represented indigent defendants who didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from through multimillionaires,” said Donofrio, who has been a lawyer for 24 years.
In addition to his private law practice experience and his having been in-house counsel and human resources manager for B.J. Alan Fireworks Co. of Youngstown, he has been an assistant Mahoning County prosecutor in the criminal and civil divisions.
“I believe that I’m uniquely qualified for this position because of just the diversity of the legal issues that I’ve been exposed to over my career,” Donofrio said.
Engler said his qualifications include his experience in litigating more than 500 criminal cases and more than 1,000 domestic relations cases and in filing more than 200 bankruptcy cases. He said he has “significantly more trial experience” and “significantly more experience” arguing appeals than Donofrio.
Engler said he has had a 3-1 acquittal-to-guilty ratio in criminal trials. In his 29 years as a lawyer, Engler said he has been “fighting on behalf of individuals who’ve had their rights violated.”
He also said he has successfully argued cases in five Ohio appellate courts, having appeared as a lawyer in Ohio appeals courts 30 times. He added he also has also successfully argued cases in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Engler said he has represented both labor and management in union contract negotiations and both plaintiffs and defendants in personal injury lawsuits and negotiated land acquisitions for multi-national corporations.
Engler has called for Donofrio to withdraw from the race because his brother is on the appeals court. “It’s inappropriate for two brothers to sit on the court of appeals,” Engler said. “You should not be doing business with your own sibling.”
Keeping the two brothers from serving on the same three-judge case-deciding panels would require costly appointments of visiting judges or unfairly impose extra work on the other appeals judges, Engler said.
Donofrio said he won’t withdraw, that no law prohibits brothers from serving on the same court, and that he and his brother don’t agree on everything. “Any cause for concern is conjecture,” he said.
“I’m here on my own merit,” Donofrio said during a Vindicator editorial board meeting.
“Nothing was ever handed to me, or my brother, or my father in life. Everything that we have, we worked very hard for. My family’s been dedicated to public service,” Donofrio said.
Engler comes to the race with some past and current baggage.
The Ohio Supreme Court publicly reprimanded him in 2006 for having consensual sex with a client in 2004. Engler said having that relationship was a mistake, but the top court said it didn’t affect his representation of her in a simple dissolution case.
Engler also has $161,616 in IRS liens on his property for unpaid taxes, of which $154,193 pertains to personal federal taxes and $7,423 pertains to taxes his law practice didn’t pay.
Despite the IRS claims, Engler said his real federal tax debt is between $50,000 and $60,000, of which about 60 percent consists of penalties and interest.