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There Will Be New Man on the Bench in Sag Harbor

Thu, 06/08/2023 - 10:43

Town judge v. lawyer in village’s only contested race

In the absence of other contested races in the upcoming Sag Harbor Village elections, all eyes have turned to the race for Sag Harbor Village justice, which pits two attorneys against each other. Steven Tekulsky, at present an East Hampton Town justice and an associate Sag Harbor Village justice, is running against Carl Irace, a Sag Harbor resident with no formal judicial experience.

The two have run against each other before, in 2014 for East Hampton Town justice. Mr. Tekulsky, who lives in East Hampton, won. He ran that race as a Democrat; Mr. Irace, as a Republican. Mr. Tekulsky has been re-elected to the bench twice, with cross-endorsements from both major parties.

Both men are now registered Democrats, not that it matters in a village election, where candidates do not align with the big parties. In this race, Mr. Irace is running on Deputy Mayor Thomas Gardella’s Windmill Party, while Mr. Tekulsky is running on his newly created Experience Party. They cannot take policy positions, and they cannot be seen as pre-judging potential cases.

“When I ran successfully for town justice 10 years ago,” said Mr. Tekulsky by phone, “against the same Carl Irace, we were both attorneys with no judicial experience vying for an open seat. Back then I ran on having more qualifications, having practiced law for more years. This race is easier, because I’m a candidate with 10 years of judicial experience, against a candidate with zero years of judicial experience. This is an election about judicial experience.”

The election is to replace Justice Lisa Rana, whose term ends in July. If victorious, Justice Tekulsky would retain both his East Hampton Town position and his legal practice. Having served as associate justice in Sag Harbor since 2019, he said, “I know the personnel. I know how to run this court. I will have no learning curve whatsoever. That’s not true of my opponent.”

Attorneys who run for town or village justice court positions are allowed to continue their law practices because they’re considered part-time judges. Mr. Tekulsky said 99 percent of his practice is transactional real estate — nothing that ends up in Justice Court.

“It was not the plan to run for judge right now,” said Mr. Irace, who said he expects his next move will be to run again for East Hampton Town justice. He was speaking with Mr. Gardella one day, he explained, and the deputy mayor said to him, “I’m going to be the mayor. I want you to be the judge.”

Mr. Gardella is running unopposed to fill the mayor’s seat when Jim Larocca retires. The lawn in front of his house, like others in the village, is adorned with large blue signs supporting Mr. Irace.

“I live here,” said Mr. Irace. “My kids go to school here. I volunteer here. I walk on Main Street. I thought, ‘This is something that I have to do.’ It’s not judicial experience that’s the critical factor in this election. The critical factor, I think, is judicial temperament.”

The Duke Law School publication Judicature defines “judicial temperament” as “a deep-seated, relatively stable set of specific personality traits — separable from intellect, training, and ideology — that, in dialectic with specific judicial environments and the predictable demands of judging, drive behaviors that affect how justice is delivered and perceived.”

Mr. Irace has been practicing law since 2001, and from his East Hampton office since 2012. He was the deputy attorney for the Town of East Hampton for two years, providing legal counsel to the town board and to the zoning board of appeals. His website notes that he has practiced “in over 22 different jurisdictions, ranging from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, to the busy criminal courts of New York City, to the courts of Suffolk County.”

While he does not as yet have formal experience on the bench, he has served as a mock-trial judge since 2019, adjudicating six cases.

“It comes back to your community experience, informed through your temperament,” he said. “A judge makes decisions based on factors. Your experience in the community informs those factors, and your temperament is there to make sure everything is done fairly. Justice and fairness are often used side by side, but justice is subjective; fairness is objective. As a seasoned prosecutor and federal criminal defense attorney, I understand both sides. I know that the legal system touches people up close, and I can make sure that everyone gets a fair shake under the law.”

Ed Haye, a member of the Sag Harbor Village Board who is its liaison to its justice court, said that on average, “five thousand to six thousand cases run through the justice court.” Approximately 4,000, he said, are parking violations, and another 1,000 are violations of the vehicle laws. “That’s the vast majority. We get a handful of civil or small-claims cases, a hundred or less that are code violations, and then another fifty to a hundred that are penal law criminal violations.”

On average, the village court presides over 40 to 50 arraignments annually.

Mr. Haye said he looks forward to a new justice improving communication and relations with the village’s Police Department. The winner of the election does not report directly to the mayor, or board of trustees, he said, but Mr. Haye also hopes he will stay on top of issues involving court employees.

The last time the village justice court position was openly contested was in 2015. Village residents will cast their ballots on June 20, a Tuesday, from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., at the Sag Harbor Fire Department, 1357 Brick Kiln Road.


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