By Justin Wier
The primary to determine the Democratic nominee for Judge Lou A. D’Apolito’s seat on Mahoning County Common Pleas Court pits two experienced attorneys with public-sector experience against each other.
Magistrate Daniel Dascenzo’s 20-year career includes 10 years as a labor attorney, and the past 10 years as a common pleas court magistrate in Judge D’Apolito’s court.
Anthony Donofrio has worked as an attorney for 27 years, including more than six years in his current role as Youngstown’s deputy law director.
Though Donofrio said he has 17 more years of practical legal experience than his opponent, Dascenzo argued his time as a magistrate provided him with crucial judicial experience a typical attorney does not possess.
“Magistrates are judicial officers,” Dascenzo said. “We make decisions, we make judgments, we issue orders.”
In Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, magistrates preside over the majority of the civil docket, but they also conduct criminal arraignments.
Dascenzo estimated that he’s handled thousands of cases and presided over dozens of trials in his 10 years on the bench.
Donofrio drew on his family history to explain what motivated him to pursue a seat on the common pleas court.
His father, Judge Joseph Donofrio, served for 13 years on the Youngstown Municipal Court and his brother Gene Donofrio currently sits on the Youngstown-based 7th District Court of Appeals.
“My parents taught us the value of honest public service and giving back to the community,” Donofrio said.
Donofrio began his career in the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s office in the early 1990s.
He later worked as general counsel for B.J. Alan Co., which owns Phantom Fireworks, for about six years before entering Youngstown’s law department.
Judge D’Apolito’s successor will contend on a near-daily basis with the fallout from a nationwide opioid epidemic that has hit Northeast Ohio particularly hard.
Donofrio drew on his father’s legacy as founder of Youngstown Municipal Court’s honor court, a precursor to modern drug courts, and advocated for diversionary programs such as Judge John M. Durkin’s drug court and Judge Maureen A. Sweeney’s mental-health court.
“It’s the ability to bring people out of the worst part of their lives and turn them around and better the community as a whole,” Donofrio said.
While he’s not opposed to punishing those who don’t respond to diversionary programs, Donofrio said successful treatment makes those who return to the streets less likely to offend again.
Dascenzo advocated for an approach that combines rehabilitation with punishment and pushed for the implementation of prevention programs.
“I don’t think you can pick one or the other,” he said. “I don’t think treatment can be as effective without some oversight.”
He said the circumstances surrounding a case matter. He also compared judicial experience to parenting, how the first child may get away with things future children may not.
“If you’re not seeing the angles, you’re going to get beat,” Dascenzo said. “That comes with experience.”
Both candidates believe their experience has prepared them for the role they hope to assume.
“Over 50 years in my family, there hasn’t been a hint of controversy,” Donofrio said. “I believe in this community, and I think I’ve given a lot back.”
Dascenzo paraphrased a TV anchor who said fairness is more than just an attitude, it’s a professional skill.
“The key element to being a judge is giving both sides the opportunity to develop their case ... what they do with that opportunity is up to them,” he said.
“They’re going to rise and fall on the strength of their case.”
The winner of May 8’s primary election will run uncontested by a Republican candidate in November’s general election.
Early primary voting continues this week at the Mahoning County Board of Elections at Oakhill Renaissance Place on Oak Hill Avenue in Youngstown.