The candidates for East Hampton Town Justice, perhaps the most hotly contested race in town this year, were interviewed at The Star last Thursday.
Both Carl Irace, who is running on the Republican ticket, and Steven Tekulsky, the Democrat, expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs at the courthouse, but their solutions frequently differed. The discussion ran for well over an hour.
Mr. Irace began by proposing that arraignments be conducted by video conferencing. “Police resources are needed to bring the defendant into court,” he said. “This would keep police on the streets where we need them.”
Mr. Tekulsky responded that video conferencing “costs money, which the town does not have.”
State law prohibits the use of video where felony charges are involved.
The candidates were asked about the many defendants who are arraigned here without an attorney present. Legal Aid provides an attorney to the court only one day a week.
“If you have arraignments at a regular time,” Mr. Tekulsky said, “it will be very easy to get attorneys to stand in. That is an easy fix.”
“On our most serious cases,” Mr. Irace said, “many are automatically remanded and there isn’t an opportunity for bail, so the worst-case scenario is already provided for with the criminal procedure law as far as anything in the middle, people have the right to make a phone call when they are in the police station, and if they can’t afford an attorney one will be provided for them.”
Both men promised to be on the bench every morning at 9:30 sharp, the listed time on the court calendars. Currently, attorneys are given time to conference before court starts, usually at about 10:15 a.m.
“When all the parties know that [9:30] is what happens, habits will change,” Mr. Tekulsky said. “What we have now is citizens just sitting there waiting, and they don’t know what’s going on.”
“Starting whenever the court gets around to it breeds alienation and resentment,” Mr. Irace said. “A set time would be more efficient.”
Further in the interest of efficiency, Mr. Irace suggested dividing the court calendar on Mondays, the day when zoning and parking cases are heard, into separate time slots. People challenging routine parking tickets, he said, should not have to sit next to those accused of zoning violations. “A lot of those building violations are crimes” he said. “People with routine parking tickets don’t want to be lumped in with that. There is an important administrative benefit to having people go at different times.”
Mr. Tekulsky disagreed. “Frankly, I’m not sure that anybody with a parking ticket is upset about sitting there with somebody who doesn’t have a C of O. I think the way the calendar is set up now is fine, as long as the judge gets up there on time. Those parking tickets will be gone in 10 minutes.”
Mr. Irace also took issue with the order in which cases are heard. “Most of the courts that I practice in have an age-based calendar,” he said. “The first case on the calendar is the oldest. In East Hampton, they are alphabetical. The problem with that is, then people don’t have a sense of urgency. Nobody knows how to prioritize the cases.”
“The problem with an age-based calendar is, you’ve got to have a hammer at the end of it. We need to have more trials out here,” Mr. Tekulsky said, adding, however, that most cases in all courts, not just East Hampton’s, are settled by negotiation or plea-bargaining. If too many cases were to go to trial, he said, it could create a huge backlog.
The town has a second courtroom, a smaller one, which has fallen into disuse, and Mr. Irace called for it to be reopened. It could be used for trials and conferences, he said, to speed up the process and cut waiting time while the main courtroom proceeds with regular business.
Mr. Tekulsky agreed, with a caveat: “We have a second courtroom which is, unfortunately, unusable right now because it has mold in it. That room is now locked. It can’t be used until that is remediated.”
Both men were asked at what point they would recuse themselves from a case, based on possible conflict of interest. Mr. Tekulsky answered that “if I’d represented a defendant before, I’d certainly disclose any interest: ‘Look, I represented this guy’s father . . . I don’t have a problem, but I must disclose it to you. If you feel more comfortable being in front of another judge, that is fine.’ ”
“I have a lot of professional contacts, but I don’t have any significant obligations to anyone in particular,” said Mr. Irace. “I’m not coming to the job with years and years of close personal ties.”
When the discussion turned to a justice’s role in the negotiation process, the candidates engaged in the liveliest exchange of the day. “I think it is a bad habit in our court for a judge to set fines on dispositions that are negotiated to lower counts,” Mr. Irace said. “The judge has the ability to set the fine on a plea to the top count.”
“I don’t agree that the judge only has the ability to set the fine when there is a plea to the top count,” Mr. Tekulsky said.
“It’s in the C.P.L. [Criminal Procedures Law],” Mr. Irace responded. “I didn’t make it up. I don’t think it is proper.”
“Why?” Mr. Tekulsky asked.
“I don’t think that is allowed. That is not the way criminal cases are handled.”
“Are you saying that in a criminal case, if the prosecutor agrees to a plea to a lesser charge, the judge can’t determine the sentence? It happens all the time.”
“I think it is a bad habit,” Mr. Irace answered.
In an e-mail to The Star on Saturday, Mr. Tekulsky wrote that “where a prosecutor agrees to a plea to less than the top count, but doesn’t care about the sentence, the sentence is completely up to the court. I stand by that as a common practice.” Mr. Tekulsky wanted to know what law Mr. Irace had cited.
Mr. Irace said after last Thursday’s interview that of all the courts he has practiced in, East Hampton’s is the only one where the justice wields such discretionary sentencing power.