There will be a new face on the bench at East Hampton Town Justice Court next year, as Steven Tekulsky, an East Hampton attorney in private practice, squares off on Nov. 5 against Carl Irace, a former deputy town attorney, to replace Justice Catherine Cahill, who will retire after 20 years.
With the Democrats guaranteed a majority on the town board and cross endorsements the rule of the day in other local electoral contests, the race for justice is shaping up to be one of the most competitive, with both candidates slinging subtle barbs at their opponents while touting their qualifications in frequent appearances and interviews.
“I’m comfortable with my three times the legal experience and five times the local experience,” said Mr. Tekulsky, 60, who has been in private practice since moving to East Hampton full time in 1988 and has often portrayed Mr. Irace as a Johnny-come-lately.
Mr. Tekulsky, a past chief and active member of the East Hampton Fire Department, has been endorsed by the Democratic and Working Families Parties. He is making his second bid for town justice, having lost to the incumbent, Lisa R. Rana, in 2007 by 333 votes.
Mr. Irace, 38, who has the backing of the Republican, Independence, and Conservative Parties, is making his first bid for public office.
A native of East Quogue, he left the Bronx District Attorney’s office in 2010, where he was an assistant district attorney for nine years, to return to the East End as an assistant town attorney when the Republicans were swept to power in East Hampton. He was promoted to deputy attorney before leaving to enter private practice after two years.
“There is more to running a court efficiently than running around saying you are going to start it on time,” he said of Mr. Tekulsky’s oft-repeated promise to be on the bench by 9:30 a.m. each day.
Besides his experience with the Bronx D.A., where he carried a heavy caseload, and his own practice, which has focused on criminal law, Mr. Irace pointed to his community involvement as helping qualify him for the job.
If elected, Mr. Irace said he would clear the court’s backlog by separating calendars, so things like routine parking tickets could be processed quickly early in the day before other, more complicated cases and conferences bog things down.
He pointed out that New York State allows video arraignments and said that would be a good way to reduce the time local police officers are required to be in the courtroom, and not out in the community.
Mr. Irace said it is disappointing that East Hampton does not make better use of the drug court run by Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein and he pledged to start one in East Hampton. “For anyone who needs treatment, the closest court is in Hampton Bays,” he said. “I dealt with hundreds of these cases as a D.A. and it is one of the most valuable ways a court can serve the community.”
Mr. Irace said the town’s courts also need to do a better job of handling zoning and code enforcement issues. “I can tell you I own my home in Springs and my wife’s mom owns a house in Montauk, so we experience these problems too,” he said.
Too often, he said, the problem can be traced to a lack of experience among prosecutors and judges. “Having a judge with knowledge of land-use policies will help,” he said.
Mr. Irace also pledged to hold night court sessions if there is a popular demand for it. “I did night hearings for the Z.B.A. for two years; when I was a D.A., I was on homicide beeper duty. If it’s something the community needs, I’d definitely sit on night court.”
He added that because he speaks Spanish, he would be able to better serve the Spanish-speaking population.
Mr. Tekulsky, who left a partnership in a New York firm that focused on defending hospitals and physicians in medical malpractice suits when he came east, has run a general practice legal office that handles everything from criminal cases, landlord-tenant disputes, zoning issues, business formations, real estate closings, probate, and even the occasional divorce. He also worked for four years in the Manhattan D.A.’s office after law school.
“I think I have the experience, both with my legal background and life experience, to really do the job properly,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in courtrooms and I’ve spent a lot of time out in the community. I have a real vision of how a courtroom should be run.”
For starters, Mr. Tekulsky said court schedules could be tightened up for the benefit of citizens. He said town justices often appear on the bench 45 minutes to an hour after court is supposed to begin at 9:30 a.m. because they are holding conferences with attorneys beforehand. “The theory is all cases should be conferenced, so they can be handled one after another,” he said, “but some of the basic ones can be conferenced right at the bench.” He promised to be on the bench promptly at 9:30 to reduce waiting times.
A more efficient court would eliminate the need to hold small claims trials and other routine cases during the evening hours, he said.
Mr. Tekulsky said East Hampton should take advantage of Southampton’s drug court, questioning whether it would be beneficial to open a similar one in East Hampton. “You can’t have one in every court system,” he said.
As to other changes, Mr. Tekulsky said he would like to see the community service format changed to provide a more meaningful task. “Most people can get 10 hours of credit for spending eight hours standing around the dump, doing nothing,” he said. “I’d like to work on ways to create a more vocational aspect to it. There are all sorts of possibilities. We should explore alternatives.”
Mr. Tekulsky would also like to see a return of youth court, which was eliminated due to budget constraints and which offered teens an opportunity to adjudicate minor offenses on their own. “If there’s no money in the budget, maybe there could be a partnership between the town and private attorneys and other donors,” he said.
Mr. Tekulsky was born in Brooklyn and raised in Stamford, Conn. He attended Elmira College and received his law degree from St. John’s University.
His wife, Stephanie, is the owner of Steph’s Stuff, a toy store on the Circle in East Hampton Village. The couple has two adult children, Alexander of Springs, who owns a lawn service business, and Kylie of East Hampton, who is studying for a master’s degree in bilingual elementary education.
Chief of the East Hampton Fire Department from 2003 to 2005, Mr. Tekulsky remains an active member of Engine Company 5 and the White Knights heavy rescue company. He is also a member of the East Hampton Town Board of Assessment Review.
Mr. Irace and his wife, Alice Cooley Irace, an attorney with Eagan and Matthews of East Hampton, were married in June, live in Springs, and plan to stay in the community for the long term. “This is where we’re going to raise our kids,” he said.
He has provided pro bono legal services to the Retreat, the Ladies Village Improvement Society, and the Amagansett Lifesaving Station since moving here and has become involved in civic organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation and the Lions Club.