The small bottle of extra-strength Excedrin District Attorney James Murphy III carried into a conference with Judge Jerry Scarano was intended as both a gag and a peace offering.
The prosecutor’s arguments in court the previous day had pushed the even-keeled Scarano’s patience. And with another headache of an argument planned before the judge, Murphy figured a tension-breaker was in order.
“He chuckled and said ‘Thanks, I will take this,’ ” Murphy recalled. “He took it in good nature.”
Such was the relationship between the Saratoga County Court judge of nearly two decades and the district attorney he often saw in his courtroom. Prior to his resignation last month, Murphy led the prosecutor’s office for all but three years of Scarano’s time on the bench— and one of those years Scarano spent as a visiting judge in Schenectady County Court.
The extroverted Murphy and the methodical Scarano maintained a working relationship that fostered a mutual respect and never crossed the boundaries of professionalism. The result was a court that adjudicated cases quickly and fairly, even during a period where its caseload markedly expanded.
On New Year’s Eve, Scarano, who turned 70 in May, will officially hang up his robe and enter retirement. Murphy, 52, is now running unopposed for Scarano’s seat.
“I have the utmost respect for both of them,” said Oscar Schreiber, the county’s chief public defender, who has worked with both for nearly 25 years. “In a sense, it’s almost bittersweet Judge Scarano and Jim Murphy are leaving their positions.”
Scarano is a third-generation Italian-American and a native of Saratoga Springs. His father operated a popular barber shop on Phila Street where the younger Scarano recalled shining shoes.
He attended the city’s St. Peter’s Academy and later enrolled at St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan Catholic university in Olean. Scarano wanted to continue his education, but was keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses in academics.
“I was very poor at math and science,” he admitted during an interview in his chambers last week. “In fact, on my chemistry Regents final I got 37.”
But he was good at writing and excelled in English — traits that seemed to go hand-in-hand with law school. Scarano enrolled at Suffolk University in Boston, graduated and then passed the bar, only to return to Saratoga Springs in 1969 to take his first job at a small law firm.
The elder attorney in the firm was Carlton King, a one-time congressman and Murphy’s grandfather. Also working in the firm was Murphy’s father, James Jr. Scarano spend three years in the office, practicing in just about every area of the law imaginable. Afterward, he left to establish his own firm and pursue his interest in criminal law.
In 1977, Scarano was brought into the district attorney’s office as an assistant. His tireless work under then-county prosecutor David Wait was enough to earn him the first assistant spot, a position considered the office’s second-in-command.
“He was an excellent practicing attorney and very well respected by his colleagues,” Wait said of Scarano. “He did exceptional work, and I felt very confident delegating responsibility to Jerry.”
Meanwhile, the younger Murphy was following his father and grandfather into the legal profession. Like Scarano, he saw it as a natural fit for his skills.
“To some degree, law was kind of a forgone conclusion with me,” Murphy recalled. “I knew from an early age it was always something I wanted to do.”
After graduating from Saratoga Springs High School, Murphy attended Bates College in Maine and then law school at Pace University just outside New York City. After passing the bar, he landed a job with a large antitrust law firm in New York City.
Murphy’s practice, though, was confined to corporate law and didn’t stray into criminal matters, that is, until a fateful day when he was sent to deliver a show-cause order to a federal courtroom in downtown Manhattan. His firm was representing Hallmark in a copyright infringement case against American Greetings for lifting a verse from a card. When he arrived, the court was in the middle of a grizzly gangland murder trial, which the judge put on pause to hear Murphy’s impassioned plea to grant Hallmark the injunction.
“The judge said to the courtroom, ‘We’re going to interrupt this case because we have a very serious greeting card infringement case,’ ” Murphy recalled.
The moment left Murphy feeling sheepish about his path in law and determined to find a different line of work. In 1988, at age 26, he returned to Saratoga County and was hired by Wait as the prosecutor’s first full-time assistant.
Murphy’s lack of experience in criminal law didn’t seem to hamper him. Scarano said the son of his old boss made quick strides in the prosecutor’s office that left him impressed.
“He took to it immediately,” he said.
For Murphy, Scarano was a mentor — a level-headed litigator who epitomized commitment to the prosecutor’s office. He was knowledgeable and offered Murphy a resource in understanding the subtle nuances of criminal law.
“He was a good person to serve as a role model for me coming into the office,” Murphy said.
Murphy and Scarano worked together under Wait until then-county court Judge Frank Williams was elected to the state Supreme Court in November 1993, leaving the seat vacant the following year. Scarano, who had mulled one day running for district attorney, decided to pursue the bench instead.
County Republicans quickly supported Scarano, a member of the party and respected attorney on both sides of the aisle. William Willig, a Democrat also interested in the seat, was appointed to the position by Gov. Mario Cuomo and had hoped to ride incumbency to victory in the predominantly Republican county, but Cuomo’s appointment was never ratified by the Republican-controlled Senate, so the seat remained vacant through the 1994 general election.
Realizing he faced almost insurmountable odds, Willig withdrew from the race, though too late to remove his name from the ballot. The election was the only one where Scarano faced an opponent, albeit one who had no intention of taking office.
The popular judge ran unopposed for a second term in 2004
“I thought he’d be an excellent judge,” said Williams. “As it turned out, he was.”
After Scarano’s departure from the prosecutor’s office, Murphy became Wait’s first assistant, and when his boss announced he wouldn’t run for a sixth term in January 1997, Murphy became the quick favorite to be his successor. With the backing of Republicans, Murphy cruised unopposed to election to his first term. He would go on to win another three terms without ever facing an opponent in the general election.
The nearly two-decade long relationship in county court between Scarano and Murphy has served as testament to their focus on their professional roles and their mutual admiration. Though they were frequently at odds, Scarano said there was never any animus shared between them.
“Everybody asks me the question about how we got along,” he said. “Well, we’ve had our difference though the years, [but] if the two of us agreed 100 percent of the time, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs. But I respect him, and I believe the feeling is mutual.”
Murphy credits Scarano with being a thorough judge who had a good understanding of the law and a temperament to properly handle disagreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys. He said the judge had sound legal reasoning and commanded respect from all attorneys who entered his courtroom.
“He did his homework always, and he knew what the law was,” Murphy said. “He wouldn’t be a pushover for either side. ... I didn’t always agree with his decisions, but I always understood them and I always respected them.”
Likewise, Schreiber said Scarano had the right blend of temperament and knowledge to wear the robe. He said Scarano never lost his cool, even when the action in his court heated up.
“As a judge, he’s the most even tempered man I’ve ever met,” Schreiber said. “He’s never raised his voice to me, and I’ve probably given him cause to do that.”
Now Murphy will have the arduous task of following Scarano’s act. Scarano said the toughest change for the prosecutor will be to go from an extremely visible public position to one that is essentially the polar opposite.
“He’s going from a job where he deals with the public and the media every day ... into an isolation chamber where you’re not allowed to deal with the public,” Scarano said. “But he knows that, and I’m sure he’ll adjust to it.”
Wait also believes Murphy will be a good replacement for Scarano. He said the district attorney’s office has groomed Murphy well to serve the county.
“Jim has the tools to be a fine jurist,” Wait said.
Williams, now retired from state Supreme Court and practicing law part-time, envisions Murphy acclimating quickly to the constraints of the bench, even if his personality doesn’t suggest it now. He said Murphy had the commitment to guide the district attorney’s office into the modern age — a level of dedication that will serve him well as judge.
“I think his personality will suit the court very well,” he said.