In a year when races for a number of key positions in East Hampton Town -- supervisor, town clerk, highway superintendent – feature candidates running unopposed, the race for town justice, with qualified and experienced contenders on both sides of the aisle, is one to watch.
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What type of experience is best for the job? The answer to that question is one area where Carl Irace and Steve Tekulsky differ.
Both feel the experience they'll bring to the bench is the right kind. Irace, the Republican pick, has spent most of his career – barring short stint as town zoning board attorney -- trying cases in courtrooms. Thirteen years as a trial attorney meant he's tried over 50 cases, undertaken thousands of jury presentations, making decisions about evidence and the facts that make a case, plus representing clients in court. "That's the right type of experience," he said during The Independent's interview last Friday afternoon.
"I believe I have the right type of experience and more of it," Tekulsky, who's running on the Democrat line, countered. Like Irace, Tekulsky spent time in the city working as a district attorney prosecuting crimes. Tekulsky was an ADA for just four years before he moved on to work with a civil law firm, trying medical malpractice and product liability cases. For the past 25 years, the 60-year-old has had a general practice in East Hampton, where, he said, he handled every type of case from criminal mischief to small claims to zoning defense.
While the pair disagreed about which experience is better suited to the role of town justice, both agreed East Hampton's Justice Court, one of the busiest in the state, needs to become more efficient. When it comes to code violations and such quality of life cases -- issues that have frustrated residents -- Irace said administrative changes could help "give priority to cases that affect the community acutely." Tekulsky said he'd keep adjournments to a minimum and would set timelines for cases to ensure efficient adjudication.
"I'm all in favor of court watchers," Tekulsky continued. He favors finding ways for the public to be more educated about court proceedings. Irace writes a blog about courts, and pointed out that, for most people, the judicial branch is where most people have direct contact with government. "Equal access and openness in our courts is an important thing," he said.
The two agreed that a second courtroom in the justice building is underused. Using it more often would require judges to change their schedules, particularly when it comes to jury trials. Tekulsky and Irace both expressed willingness to do so, if it will make the court run more efficiently. Could that mean adding a third judge? Neither candidate thought so, at first blush.
They also support finding a way to reinstate the Youth Court, which was a victim of budget cuts.
Although he's a relative newcomer to East Hampton, Irace's family has lived in East Quogue since 1948. Tekulsky has lived in town for 25 years. Is having strong ties, even family ties, in the community a positive or a negative?
"Objectivity is essential,' Irace, 38, said. "There are so many conflicts that can arise as an attorney. There are all those and more as a judge."
"There's no question there will be a lot of people I know [coming to court]," Tekulsky said. However, the candidate said he is best known for being fair. As a chief of the East Hampton Fire Department and as a member of the board of assessors, Tekulsky said people he interacted with – whether friend or stranger – learned "everyone's got to follow the same rules." Overall, he feels his knowledge of the community and its residents is a plus.
Tekulsky and Irace diverged when it came to the concept of working with non-English speaking defendants. Irace characterized his ability to speak Spanish as "a valuable tool," while Tekulsky feel it would be "inappropriate" for a judge to offer information in a language other than English from the bench.
Both candidates closed with discussion of the desire to serve. Newly married, Irace said he plans to raise his family here. "This is what I can do to give back to the community." He noted that he currently serves the public in his private practice by working for indigent clients.
"My life has been one of public service," Tekulsky said, in addition to a quarter century as a volunteer with EHFD, he's provided pro bono legal services to such local organizations as the Pediatric Dental Fund and Citizens For Access Rights.
Election Day is November 5.