At a sentencing hearing for convicted murderer Seth Lyons last month, County Court Judge Donald Williams was about to offer some advice to the victim’s family on how to begin healing from the brutal killing of their loved one. The judge, about to enter his 10th year on the bench, prefaced his remarks with the words, “I have been doing this a long time.” Then Williams cast his eyes briefly to the defense table and attorney Bryan Rounds. “Some would say too long.”
On Friday, Rounds lifted the veil on the worst-kept secret in Ulster County legal circles when he announced that he would seek election to the county judgeship.
“I believe that everything in my personal life and professional career has prepared me for this office at this moment in time,” said Rounds, 49, of the Town of Ulster.
In the other countywide law-related race, Kingston attorney Dave Clegg, one of the hopefuls in the seven-way scrum for the Democratic line in last year’s congressional election, is according to reports organizing a run for district attorney. Clegg has scheduled a “special campaign announcement” on the county courthouse steps for 2 p.m. Saturday. Current DA Holley Carnright, a Republican, hasn’t yet indicated whether he will seek re-election.
Rounds began his career as an assistant district attorney in Albany nearly 25 years ago. He has been in private practice, specializing in criminal defense, for 19 years. He currently runs the Wall Street law firm Rounds & Rounds with his wife Alexis. Rounds also serves as an assistant county public defender. In addition to his work in state court, Rounds is certified to represent clients in federal courts.
Williams, 66, has been a fixture of local law enforcement for four decades. He began his legal career with the Ulster County DA’s office in 1979, rising to the post of senior assistant DA and, in 1999, district attorney. Over the course of his career he prosecuted high-profile cases including that of Hudson Valley Mall shooter Robert Bonelli and the killers of Karen Zentner, who died after she was struck by a boulder hurled from an overpass across the Thruway in 1991. In 2009, running as a Republican, Williams was elected county court judge. During his time on the bench, Williams has become known for his hard-edged style with attorneys, his solicitous way with jurors and crime victims and his harsh words — and harsh sentences — for convicted defendants who he believes display insufficient remorse.
Williams has also publicly expressed his disdain for plea agreements, telling attorneys that, if it were up to him, every felony case would be decided by a jury trial. Williams acknowledges plea agreements as a necessary evil in a system where prosecutors and defense attorneys must clear hundreds of felony cases each year with limited resources. But over the years, lawyers on both sides have expressed frustration with his lack of flexibility in approving plea deals. In 2017, DA Holley Carnright’s office filed a lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court’s appellate division to prohibit Williams from unilaterally altering the terms of plea agreements.
Williams has yet to announce whether he will seek a second 10-year term on the bench. In an emailed statement on Wednesday, Williams declined to comment saying that he would make an announcement at “the appropriate time.” But Rounds has taken the unusual step for a county judicial race of hiring a professional campaign team which has their eyes firmly on the incumbent.
Judicial races have strict limits on rhetoric: allegations of malfeasance or incompetence are off limits and even certain words like “tough” or “restore” can run afoul of the ethics code. Judicial candidates are also barred from making statements that suggest they would apply the law in a different manner than their opponent.
Retired at 70?
One issue that will likely come up on the campaign trail is Williams’ age. At 66, he is just four years shy on the mandatory retirement age for county, state supreme and appeals court judges, meaning that, if re-elected he could be forced to give up the seat less than halfway through his term. State law does allow judges to serve up to three two-year terms beyond their retirement, provided an independent panel certifies the need for their service and their physical and mental fitness for the job.
Rounds’ team is also counting on Ulster County’s shifting political demographics to give them an edge against a long-serving incumbent. A surge in Democratic Party enrollment in recent years has fundamentally altered the political landscape, giving Democrats a roughly 15,000-voter enrollment advantage in the formerly Republican-majority county.