Mayor Walsh Appoints Erica Clarke to Fill Vacancy on Syracuse City Court Bench

Appointment hailed as a “Brilliant Choice”

Syracuse, N.Y. – Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh today announced the appointment of Erica T. Clarke to fill a vacant seat on the Syracuse City Court. Clarke, a criminal defense lawyer in Syracuse, has worked in the local court system for the past decade. She has experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney and an assistant corporation counsel.

She earned her Juris Doctorate from Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fl., in 2010. After interning in the Office of the Public Defender in Jacksonville, Clarke returned to Syracuse working as a Law and Appeals Intern in the Onondaga County Office of the District Attorney. In 2011, she became an assistant district attorney working in the City/Municipal Court Bureau handling misdemeanor and violation level offenses. In 2013, she moved to the Felony Vehicular Crimes unit prosecuting misdemeanor and felony offenses, including preparing and conducting jury level trials and hearings.

Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh

According to Mayor Walsh, “When I looked at her resume I was impressed, because I felt like she had the right balance of experience. Between spending the first part of her career on one side of the courtroom, as a prosecutor in the D.A.’s Office. The most recent part of her career on the other side as a Criminal Defense Attorney, in between she was here in City Hall.  When I interviewed her and learned more about her life experience and her story, it became evident to me that it was the perfect balance of work experience, and life experience that would make her uniquely qualified to be a judge. The things that she’s been through in her life, from growing up with a teenage mother, and then becoming one herself. Persevering, putting herself through college and law school. It’s inspiring, but it’s also very relatable to what a lot of other people in our city are going through. So, when individuals come before her in court, often times she’s going to be able to relate to them in a way that I never could, and a lot of others can’t. While that’s really valuable, it can’t be just about that, you need to have the legal chops to back it up.  So, it was really the combination that set her apart.”

Alan Rosenthal, criminal defense attorney and activist said, “From a lawyer perspective, from a community activist perspective, I think that this is one of the most significant appointments to a judgeship. It harkens me back to the Langston McKinney appointment. What I thought Judge McKinney brought to the bench, some of the qualities that aren’t particularly characteristics of people that get appointed to the bench. When I think about Erica, and gotten to know her as a mentor, in her recent career path as a defense attorney. She is, in lots of different ways, the non-traditional mold of a judicial appointment. And I say that in the most positive sense. She brings with her, life’s experience that isn’t the normal path to law school, and to lawyering.  It’s unusual to find somebody who’s a judge who grew up in the school of hard knocks. With a working-class background, with a real sense of what racial struggles are about. With a real sense of how difficult life can be, how harsh and traumatizing poverty can be. So those are the kinds of things that allow a person to view their clients or in the case of a judge, in a much more human and respectful way.  Because they understand so clearly, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’ It’s something Judge McKinney brought to the bench. Judges have to do some harsh things, but almost to a person, if you talk to a defendant who had to appear before judge McKinney, it was; “This is the first time I’ve walked into a courthouse and felt like a human being.”

Syracuse City Hall

Laura Fiorenza, quality enhancement attorney with the assigned Counsel program, Onondaga County Bar Association; has worked with Erica T. Clarke and was excited about her appointment as a Syracuse City Court Judge,” I think that Erica was probably the most brilliant choice that Mayor Walsh could have made. Erica brings to the bench a strong depth of knowledge and experience in criminal law. She’s practiced criminal law for over 10 years. And she’s an exceptional trial attorney. But I think even more importantly, is that Erica understands the people that come before her. Erica grew up in Syracuse, she did not grow up in a family that was well connected, or well off financially. She moved a lot from rental to rental as a child, she went to all Syracuse City Public Schools. And she had a lot of obstacles in life that she overcame. She has a multi-racial family; she knows what it’s like, the fear that she has, to have a son of color, and she’s had to have “the talk”. But she’s also worked on both sides of the criminal justice system, so she’s got a very unique view, and I think a view that is of benefit to anybody that is a citizen of Central New York. She finished her schooling with a GED as a teen mom. She worked hard to raise her son and work her way through college and Law School. For people that are in front of Erica, they might feel like things are hopeless or that they don’t have a bright future. Erica is a beacon of hope, she can inspire youth in the city, who find themselves in an environment not commonly associated with bright futures.”

“I am honored to serve my City as a judge,” said Clarke. “It is extremely rewarding to have the opportunity to help others through some of the hardest times in their lives and to work with them in navigating a system that can be very complex and intimidating to those who are not attorneys. I will work every day to serve the people of Syracuse in the pursuit of justice and fairness.”

Clarke worked as assistant corporation counsel for the City of Syracuse from 2017 to 2019. She represented the City in state and federal lawsuits, including preparing and conducting jury trials and managing all aspects of civil litigation. She currently owns and operates her own law practice, Clarke Law Firm, PLLC, which focuses solely on criminal defense.

Clarke attended Franklin and Danforth Elementary schools, Clary Middle School and Fowler High School. She earned her Bachelor of Science from Keuka College in 2007. Clarke also worked for the Onondaga County Health Department and Department of Social Services.

Clarke fills a City Court seat vacated by the Hon. Rory McMahon who was elected to State Supreme Court this fall. She will be one of nine judges on the court and will be sworn in as a City Court judge in January.