With a pending vacancy on the East Hampton Town Justice Court and no incumbent seeking re-election, two candidates who would be new to the bench hope to don the robe. Town justices preside over everything from routine traffic ticket to violent crime cases, switching gears to handle zoning and quality-of-life matters, in addition to serving as court administrators. For this multifaceted role, justices are paid a salary and benefits in the proposed budget for next year of almost $119,000.
Both candidates, Carl Irace and Steven Tekulsky, have said they regard the post as part-time, and, unfortunately in our view, agree that they would keep their private practices should they be victorious. To his credit, Mr. Tekulsky explained that he would only handle nonjudicial matters, such as wills and real estate transactions. Mr. Irace, however, has indicated he would continue to take on zoning and criminal cases, albeit in other jurisdictions. That may be wishful thinking. The demands of the office are many; even when one of the two town justices is not on the bench, the work never stops.
Aside from age, the candidates’ qualifications are rather evenly matched. Mr. Irace, 38, was an East Hampton Town attorney for two years after working in the Suffolk and Bronx district attorneys’ offices. After leaving the town post, he went into private practice and has done pro bono work for local organizations, including the Retreat and Ladies Village Improvement Society. He grew up in Garden City and went to the University of Pennsylvania and the Villanova School of Law.
Mr. Tekulsky, 60, has practiced law in East Hampton since 1988. Before that, he was an assistant D.A. in Manhattan. His law degree is from St. John’s University. He, too, has done work for local organizations and is a past chief of the East Hampton Fire Department.
In considering whom to vote for, one should remember the two sides of East Hampton Town Justice Court — traffic and criminal on the one hand and civil and zoning on the other. In matters such as driving while intoxicated and petty theft, what a justice can and cannot do is fairly well circumscribed. Bail amounts can only be within certain limits, and the more serious felony cases are handled elsewhere. That is not to say that temperament and people skills are unnecessary. Particularly in cases involving first brushes with the law, a wise and seasoned response from a judge can help steer a person to a better path.
In the good-old-boy world that is East Hampton Town ordinance enforcement, and in particular zoning matters, it is a whole different ball game. With only the scantiest of standards and oversight, local justices can improperly insinuate themselves into how cases are handled, granting extra time to admitted violators, for example. Discussions are frequently held out of earshot, with stiff penalties handed out only reluctantly and sometimes only after public outcry. In this, we worry that Mr. Tekulsky’s stronger local ties might be a disadvantage, although voters will have to take him at his word that he would see that the law took precedence over friendships.
As to Mr. Irace, he ended two undistinguished years as a town lawyer under still-unclear circumstances. He could have an edge in zoning matters precisely because he has more minimal ties to local builders, brokers, and attorneys, although he might have to recuse himself in cases that were before the town attorney’s office when he was there. His campaigning has been tireless, and he makes some good points about managing the court calendar more efficiently, but we are left with a nagging uncertainty about just why he is seeking the town justice post.
Neither candidate engenders much excitement from us, frankly, though we expect Mr. Tekulsky to win and act responsibly on the bench. Whether he can put an end to the revolving zoning court door only time will tell.