With expanded court, justices spend less time on the bench

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A 2007 decision to expand the Southampton Town Justice Court to add a fourth town justice position, pitched as a way to deal with one of the state’s busiest caseloads, appears to have done little but significantly reduce the amount of time each justice spends on the bench.

This year’s race for Southampton Town justice could be shaping up to be a referendum of sorts on the move. In the election to fill the new seat, created by the Town Board in February 2007, Republican Edward Burke Sr. defeated Democrat Andrea Schiavoni. This year, Ms. Schiavoni, a mediation attorney from Sag Harbor, is challenging incumbent Thomas DeMayo for a town justice position, and she first raised the issue on the campaign trail.

The resolution to add a fourth seat to the bench was initiated by former Town Supervisor Patrick Heaney, who obtained authorization from Albany, saying the caseload in the town courts had grown to the point that a fourth justice was needed. In fact, it appears that after the expansion of the court, the four justices spend less time on the bench as a group than three justices did.

Before Justice Burke joined the bench, the three town justices worked a rotating schedule of 18 weeks each per year, for a salary of $67,100, plus a full benefits package which can total as much as $16,000 for family coverage. Once Justice Burke joined the rotation, he simply took four and a half weeks of work from each of the other justices. As a result, for the same salary-and-benefits package, each of the four town justices now works 13 weeks per year. Three justices at 18 weeks per year is a total of 54 weeks on the town bench; four justices at 13 weeks is 52 weeks on the bench.

Justice DeMayo established a night court in May, and now each justice works an additional Thursday per month as part of his or her rotation. But for Ms. Schiavoni, that’s too little, too late.

“Essentially, the fourth justice did not change the schedule and did not expand night court until recently,” Ms. Schiavoni said. “That hardly justifies the cost of a fourth judge.”

Current Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, a councilwoman when she voted in favor of adding the fourth justice, confirmed that the position was established as a way to address the needs of a growing and increasingly congested court. According to the resolution adopted on February 27, 2007, the additional justice post would “help the town meet its growing judicial caseload quickly and efficiently,” and “would provide the town the future flexibility to address increasing Justice Court caseload volume and the need to focus on health, safety, and quality of life issues.”

It seems neither has happened. “There’s a line out the door for traffic matters,” Ms. Kabot said. “We need a second judge to handle those cases.” The supervisor added that when the initiative was put before her for a vote, her impression was that “the additional judge would cut down on the backlog.” She also said Mr. Heaney rushed the resolution through with no discussion.

Ms. Kabot said the court schedule was ironed out among the four judges before she was certified as supervisor, although Ms. Kabot said Justice Deborah Kooperstein wanted to have two judges sitting simultaneously and not the status quo. “Despite her protests, they made that decision,” Ms. Kabot said. According to state law, the Town Board does not have jurisdiction over the court’s scheduling.

Ms. Kabot said she misspoke when she recently told a local newspaper that only Justice DeMayo had taken on extra days. “They all have stepped up,” she said. “But he stepped up first. Although this is election time. He’s heard loud and clear that there needs to be more time on the bench.”

Ms. Schiavoni has argued that the purpose of adding the fourth justice has not been achieved and has advocated for a more efficiently run court. “A more fiscally responsible court is a more fair court,” Ms. Schiavoni said in the first Town Justice debate. “Because it makes better use of taxpayer dollars.”

Justice DeMayo defended the decision to add a fourth justice and said the caseload is large enough that he also favors relocating the court from its current location at Town Hall to Jackson Avenue in Hampton Bays, a move recently sanctioned by the Town Board to the tune of $3 million. “The court has outgrown its room in Southampton Village,” the justice said. “I supported the fourth justice position—make no bones about it.”

He also said, “First of all, the court, and the judges, had nothing to do with creating that fourth justice—that was the Town Board’s decision … I’m sure this position was not a silly decision, probably a prudent one.”

To address the backlog in the court’s docket, Ms. Schiavoni has floated the idea of going to a system of “two full-time judges” who would sit side by side. “I may be talking myself out of a job,” she said, noting that the four justice positions are all part-time, “but it may be the best thing for the town.” Ms. Schiavoni said she also favors two full-time justices to limit potential conflicts of interest, as those serving full time on the bench are prohibited from practicing law, something part-time justices are allowed to do.

Justice DeMayo said he disagreed with that plan, arguing that full-time judges would result in greater expenditures for the town. “They would have to be paid more money,” he said. However, according to Ms. Schiavoni, justice courts are controlled by the state comptroller’s office, not the state’s judicial office, which means the Town Board can decide how much the justices are paid.

“The current system of four judges is better than going to two,” Justice DeMayo said. “If it’s not broke, then don’t fix it.”

The justice added that moving out of the cramped quarters of Town Hall to the more spacious facility in Hampton Bays would solve many of the court’s logistical problems. In addition to adding night court on Wednesdays, Justice DeMayo said he has already separated traffic matters from the rest of the cases and dedicated Monday mornings to appearance tickets.

“We’re crammed in the basement of Town Hall,” Justice DeMayo said. “There’s one large courtroom and one small courtroom. Occupancy requirements are often exceeded. Right now, we don’t even have the parking to handle the amount of cases coming in.”

Ms. Schiavoni questioned the need to relocate to Jackson Avenue and said much could be done right now to address the congestion and backlog. “I would oppose further construction at Jackson Avenue until we’ve established a revenue producing night court,” she said, “And until we’ve made use of all the cost-saving technology available to us, like video arraignments, e-filings, and satellite facilities, such as the one already available in Sag Harbor.”

Ms. Schiavoni, a professional mediator, said the town’s mediation program is underutilized. “Most cases are settled before they go to trial,” she said. “I would like nothing better than to make that program work. That would also help alleviate congestion.”

Ms. Schiavoni added that, in her opinion, the people of Southampton should have a say in all these logistical court matters through the ballot box.

At another debate last week in Hampton Bays, Justice DeMayo highlighted his 16 years of experience on the town bench. “As a 54-year resident of the East End and a town justice from 1978 to 1986, and then again from 2000 until now, I’m uniquely qualified and experienced to best serve the people of Southampton.”

“You’re going to hear a lot about experience and qualifications,” Ms. Schiavoni countered, “and with all due respect to my opponent, I have legal experience that he’s never seen.” Ms. Schiavoni said her work in Miami and Los Angeles with gangs, drugs, and cases of abuse and neglect gave her a broader perspective that she wanted to bring to the town. “Those problems are on the rise in Southampton. We need to understand these problems in order to prevent them from growing,” she said.

“I really don’t know what experience she’s talking about,” Justice DeMayo said. “This is a people’s court. Her experience is irrelevant.”

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