East Hampton Town Justice Catherine Cahill has served for 16 years, and during that time, she said she has helped to shepherd the court through many changes.
Ms. Cahill, 57, is a former East End prosecutor in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office who was first elected to her current position when Tony Bullock was town supervisor. She studied anthropology and worked with her mother as a social worker in New York City before getting her law degree from Pace University.
“I love my job. I feel that I am very productive in my job. I have a good grip on the criminal justice system,” she said. “In 16 years, the Justice Court system has grown exponentially. It bears absolutely no resemblance to when I came on. The number of felonies and violent crimes have just grown to take over the Justice Court.”
Ms. Cahill said that while the town’s new court building, which it began using last year, has helped her run a more secure courtroom, she still had to fight the town for everything, from bullet-proof glass for her clerks to a metal detector at the entrance to the courtroom, which she acquired through a grant but remains in storage because the town won’t pay for a court officer to operate it. She said that the entrance to the main court room is wired for the metal detector.
“All I have to do is plug it in,” she said.
“There were serious security issues,” she said of the town’s former courtroom, where Town Hall meetings still take place. “People could be in there for an uninspected motor vehicle and be sitting knee to knee with someone in shackles.”
The new courtroom has a holding cell and a conference room, allowing far more options to protect people who use the Justice Court for routine matters, she said.
Ms. Cahill also said that she has worked to make the court both efficient and friendly, and that her philosophy is to allow people who appear for traffic tickets to vent and receive the benefit of a reduction in their fines.
“I don’t know of another Justice Court where you call and you get a person on the phone right away who looks up your records,” she said. “It’s very, very efficient. When we get an employee, they don’t leave.”
Ms. Cahill said that her opponent’s complaints about the backlog of zoning cases on Mondays arises from the fact that she needs to hear zoning cases when code enforcement and dog control officers are available in order to resolve the cases, and that she can ask those officials to take only one day out of their busy schedules to appear in court.
“It’s really a synthesis of precision,” she said of the zoning calendar.
Ms. Cahill said that when she first started working at the court, she very rarely needed to have Spanish interpreters.
“Spanish day was once a month and it was never even crowded,” she said. “Now every day is Spanish day. I literally can’t run the court without an interpreter.”
She pointed out that the town is reimbursed by Suffolk County for the cost of interpreters. She added that few East Hampton Town Police officers speak Spanish, leading to more confusion when Spanish speakers first come in contact with the town’s criminal justice system.
Working with immigrants who often don’t have driver’s licenses has made it difficult for her to sentence drunk drivers, in particular, she said.
“If they don’t have a license, you can’t sentence them to a Stop DWI program,” she said, adding that she now sentences drunk drivers without licenses to a program called TASC, which forbids driving for one year and involves more intense supervision than probation. People who violate the TASC program end up spending six months in the Suffolk County jail. Ms. Cahill said that, as recently as nine months ago, if illegal immigrants appeared before her and were sent to the Suffolk County Jail they would likely be deported, but she said that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement has changed its enforcement dramatically in recent months.
“I had someone last week with a letter who was ordered to leave the country at his own expense. They’re not even paying to deport people now,” she said. “There isn’t a system that hasn’t broken down.”
Ms. Cahill said that Town Justice Court is still running smoothly. She said that she was disappointed that the Town Republicans have chosen to run Andy Hammer against her instead of cross-endorsing, which is a common practice in Southampton’s Town Justice races.
“It’s not a good year to be a Democrat,” she said. “Andy’s a very nice fellow and he has a following, but you’re not going to find anyone who has a viable complaint about how this court is running.”