The second-floor conference room of the Sag Harbor Municipal Building is typically used as a gathering space where governmental issues are discussed and public comments invited. But on Tuesday, it was no ordinary village board meeting. Attendees were scanned by a metal detector and told to leave their cell phones in their cars. Three policemen and a collection of men in suits stood by an empty table in the middle of the room.
“All rise,” the bailiff said.
Everyone stood as Justice Andrea Schiavoni entered the room.
“Welcome to Sag Harbor Justice Court,” she said with a smile.
Tuesday, December 14 was the first session of the justice court under Schiavoni, who was appointed by Southampton Town in September. She will serve as the court’s sole judge until village elections in June, at which point she will have to be formally voted into office if she wants to stay in the position.
The docket on Tuesday included 11 cases ranging from traffic violations and a civil dispute to one felony case. Though felonies are always tried at the county level, Schiavoni said all defendants will be arraigned in Sag Harbor within 24 hours, including those issued felony charges. Schiavoni will be on-call at all times for arraignments.
Felony cases will also be heard at the village level until the charges are either brought before a grand jury and the defendant is indicted (at which point the case will move on to the county level), or the Assistant District Attorney (A.D.A.) decides to “knock it down” and prosecute for a misdemeanor charge instead of a felony.
In the case of Joseph S. Hoeler, who was charged with burglary in the second degree on December 13, a felony, his hearing has been rescheduled for a later date at the village justice court. Hoeler was unable to attend his hearing Tuesday and because he has not yet been indicted by a grand jury he will return to the Sag Harbor court in January.
As this was the first day of court, composed entirely of conferences rather than trials, only four cases were disposed — all traffic violations — and three defendants were no-shows. In the future, as more cases are ready to go to trial, Schiavoni said she will hold conferences in the morning and trials in the afternoon. The court day begins at 9 a.m.
All civil cases initially stemming from Sag Harbor with claims less than $3,000 will be heard at the justice court. Tuesday’s only civil case was a landlord/tenant dispute, which Schiavoni mentioned she could try that afternoon, as her schedule was clear. However, as some of the parties involved are not local, the attorneys instead asked to bring the case before the judge at the next justice court date, December 28.
Sag Harbor Justice Court will meet two days each month and the schedule is based on an estimate generated from the number of arrests recorded last year. According to clerk Leslie Murray, the number of cases in January 2009 was 162. As Schiavoni currently sees over 100 cases in a given day at Southampton Town, She noted this number is quite manageable.
Schiavoni added that the Sag Harbor Justice Court will operate the same way all justice courts in Suffolk County do. At least one A.D.A. and one legal aid attorney will be on hand for any defendants without private representation.
There is also an interpreter available for Spanish-speaking defendants. Schiavoni called on the interpreter on Tuesday when she wanted to make certain the defendant knew exactly what he was pleading guilty to (a traffic fine).
As a judge in a small town, Schiavoni said she tries to keep a low profile as it is, so she doesn’t foresee encountering too many conflicts of interest.
However, she added, “I disclose everything [at the beginning].”
During Tuesday’s civil case conference she told the court, for the record, that she knew of the defendant, but did not socialize or have any business negotiations with her, which was acceptable to all parties.
“It’s not enough to be impartial, you have to be beyond the appearance of impartiality,” she said. “If someone thinks you are not impartial, then they’ll think justice is not being served.”