When she first took the bench in 1993, said East Hampton Town Justice Catherine Cahill, “they would come into court and think I was the clerk. Then I’d put my robe on, and there would be this look of panic.”
After two decades, Justice Cahill, the first woman ever to preside over the local court, has decided to step down. She will retire on Dec. 31.
“I had a difficult time with the decision,” she said on Monday, explaining that for several months she’s been weighing her love of the job against a very real feeling that 20 years was enough.
Much has changed in town court during that time, she said. In the early days, the court’s two justices would split the month: two weeks on, two off. Now, study and research make it a full-time job. Ms. Cahill keeps a pad of paper on the night table next to her bed, handy for making notes when she wakes up at 3 in the morning with the next day’s docket running through her mind.
“It’s a much more sophisticated bar now,” she said. “People with influence, money, they want to paper you to death. Some of them have two lawyers. The higher the attorneys’ fees, the more they’re expected to do.” At the same time, said the justice, the prosecution is frequently represented by younger, less experienced attorneys.
“My role is to be the gate-keeper,” she said — to see that the defendant represented by Legal Aid gets the same break as someone who can afford a high-priced attorney. “Nobody comes to a court because they want to. They show up pretty ticked off. A parking ticket written in August to a doctor from New York? You have no idea what you’re about to hear.”
Justice Cahill has watched many people turn their lives around after a brush with the law, one of the most gratifying aspects of the job, she said. “There is no way to overestimate the satisfaction you get from touching a life. The other side of the coin — the “underbelly,” she called it — is passing sentence on repeat offenders. “You sometimes have to be the bad guy. If everyone likes you, you’re probably not doing a good job.”
The justice sees a possible connection between the kinds of offenses coming through the court today and the changing demographics of the town. When she began her tenure, she remembered, the court had one day a month set aside for Spanish-speaking defendants. Now a translator is present for every court session, and two of the seven court clerks speak Spanish.
Justice Cahill sees the immigration reform bill that is slowly progressing through Congress as a hopeful sign of change and a rare example of the political system working. Too often, she said, it doesn’t. “Gun control is a perfect example of our political system gone awry.”
The justice was first drawn to the law as a child. “When I was a little girl, my mom worked for the Family Service League,” protecting the powerless and the vulnerable. The young Ms. Cahill wondered what kept people that way and why the laws did not work better. “What is a law? How does it work?” she remembers asking.
She shared a homeroom at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx with another future judge, United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whom she remembers as an outstanding scholar. After a spell at Westchester Community College, where Ms. Cahill was at the top of her class, she was awarded a full scholarship to Southampton College. Her family had a summer house in Springs, but that was her first year-round experience of life on the East End.
After a year at a Los Angeles law school (“I hated L.A.”), she came back to the East Coast, getting a degree from Pace Law School. Next came a job with New York City’s Division of Real Property, which auctions off seized assets.
The city in the mid-’80s had bounced back from the depths of the 1970s, but was not yet the gentrifying metropolis it is today. Ms. Cahill recalls the biannual auctions as chaotic, bizarre, and exciting. “All different ethnic groups. Hasidics, blacks, Latinos, all competing to buy pieces of the Big Apple, all milling around One Police Plaza with satchels filled with cash. You had to have ten percent cash on hand. Fights would break out, and the police would have to be called in.”
Around that time she met Marvin Hyman, an attorney with a practice in East Hampton. “He would come into the city when he could, and I would come out here when I could. After two years, we got married.” After the birth of their first son, Zachary, the couple gave up their SoHo apartment. “I went from Mercer Street to Cedar Street,” said the justice.
She found she was not cut out to be a stay-at-home mom, especially not 100 miles from the city. “What am I doing here?” she asked her husband.
Mr. Hyman encouraged his wife to apply for a job in the office of the Suffolk County District Attorney. She had her doubts, but sent in a résumé, and was hired as an assistant D.A. for the East End, a modern-day circuit-rider traveling from jurisdiction to jurisdiction each week to handle local prosecutions: “Eight different justice courts. Eight different personalities.”
One North Fork justice, whom she wouldn’t identify, was particularly mercurial. “You never knew what you’d get,” she said of her weekly visit to that court.
Early on, in a case where the defendant had bitten off part of another man’s nose (“I was so confident I was going to win”), the young prosecutor learned a valuable lesson. It had happened at a bachelor party, where strippers were performing and booze was flowing freely. At the end of the trial, the jury went out, then came right back in.
“I thought they wanted to ask a question.” Instead, they turned in the verdict: not guilty.
Ms. Cahill realized that the case she’d been prosecuting was, in the eyes of the jury, just “a bar fight,” and understood that she needed to do a better job of assessing facts, to look more closely at witnesses, to size up a case before it got to court. “Assaults. A drug deal gone bad. ‘This is going to be a disorderly conduct conviction.’ ”
Her work and integrity caught the eye of former East Hampton Town Justice James R. Ketcham. “ ‘You have standards. You don’t just give in,’ ” he told her.
“He was sort of my mentor,” she said.
With Justice Edward Horne about to retire, Justice Ketcham urged Ms. Cahill, who had now been in the D.A.’s office for five years, to run for the bench. On the Democratic ticket or the Republican? “It was a tossup, the D’s or the R’s.” But when Mr. Horne, a Republican, changed his mind and decided to run again, she aligned herself with the Democrats.
Her late husband was a Republican. “Over the years, he became more Democrat and I became more Republican.”
Despite the changes over 20 years, East Hampton is still a small town, and being a justice here, she said, does produce an occasional awkward moment. Sometimes she’ll meet someone socially who will stop and stare at her. “Where do I know you from? they’ll ask me.” She knows exactly where: when they pleaded guilty to a speeding ticket last week.
Now a young 58, Justice Cahill is uncertain of what the future will bring. She’s tripled the size of her garden in Springs, but she also keeps a small apartment in the city where she likes to spend time. Travel is a possibility as well; she’s been thinking about Myanmar (Burma).
Whatever her future holds, it will certainly include her Boston Terrier, Yogi, who has made the trip to court with her for the past five years. The courthouse staff, the justice predicted with a laugh, will “miss Yogi more than they’ll miss me.”
She’s leaving the court in the good hands of her fellow justice Lisa Rana, she said, adding, “I feel close to her.” The two have worked together for the past 10 years.
She is also close with the staff of guards and court clerks, whose jobs, she said, “take a special mentality. The morale in the court office is always wonderful.” She particularly singled out her clerk of many years, Jennifer Anderson. “She’s super,” Justice Cahill said. “She is as smart as any of the lawyers who come in here.”
Ms. Anderson returned the compliment. “She is so caring and loving,” the court clerk said of the retiring justice. “Those are going to be very big shoes to fill.”
On Tuesday night, three contenders for the vacant seat on the court screened with the Independence Party for its nomination. They are Steven Tekulsky, an East Hampton attorney who will probably win Democratic support, Carl Irace, a former town attorney who has the Republican nomination sewn up, and Joe Giannini, a former marine and veterans’ advocate.