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Oct 22, 2008 9:15 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

With expanded court, justices spend less time on the bench

Oct 22, 2008 9:15 AM

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.

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If the town is trying to cut costs why don't they reduce the judges' salaries ?
They work less hours but still get the same salary salery and benefits package !!!
By PrivateerMatt (390), Southampton on Oct 22, 08 4:26 PM
Lets see 4 weeks less work and the same pay equals a 30% or so salary increase. Anybody else get that kind of a raise this year? And, on an annual basis that's $268,000 (plus benefits times 4). How much would we have to pay for one full time justice? I'll bet not nearly as much as this extraordinary 'Black Robe" excess!
By foodie (74), Remsenburg on Oct 22, 08 5:49 PM
I know several of the Justices. They are good people. But over $1000 a day plus benefits is just silly.
By southamptonnative (11), southampton on Oct 22, 08 7:21 PM
Skip Heaney says he got a solid guarantee from each of the judges before he agreed to seek the fourth position. They promised to add extra shifts, add a weekly night court. Typical lawyers. Say one thing and do another.
Kabot should take away the new court in Hampton Bays now, and save the taxpayers millions.
By Hampton (50), Westhampton on Oct 23, 08 8:03 AM
If our goal is to continue to drive crime down to the lowest possible level, we need to have more officers, and judges .

It’s a catch 22, we will need them but not now. Maybe in 10years when the crime level gets higher.

As for the crime rate out here in The Hampton’s, there is no need for another judge. As for the police, we should hire a new police office, for every officer that retires.

You also have to make the same investment in social services: drug treatment, ...more
By KAZ (26), HAMPTON BAYS on Oct 24, 08 6:07 PM
A few weeks back, DeMayo asked everyone in court with tickets for overnight parking to raise their hands, two dozen people raised their hands, then he dismissed them all. Court staff said he does this sometimes if he has to be somewhere and wants a shorter work day. Go Andrea!
By Hampton (50), Westhampton on Oct 27, 08 9:50 AM
actually that almost makes me want to vote for demayo. how about everyone who got any silly parking ticket raise your hand and have it dismissed? how about just letting up on the handing out of dumb tickets to begin with? it's time we stopped making every honest citizen feel like a felon for unimportant infractions of minor traffic regulations. let's worry about keeping our community clean and safe.
By davidf (325), hampton bays on Nov 2, 08 12:18 AM