By Kathryn G. Menu
On June 15, New York State Governor David Patterson signed into law legislation that allows residents of the Village of Sag Harbor the right to elect a village justice from outside the village – specifically from the towns of East Hampton and Southampton –without opening the race to the whole of Suffolk County.
The bill was introduced in January – sponsored by New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., a lifelong resident of Sag Harbor and the village trustees’ own legal counsel.
While the village was entitled to create its own justice court, which Sag Harbor officials have embarked upon for the second time in five years, its justices must legally reside in Sag Harbor Village or candidacy must be opened up to residents throughout Suffolk County.
Sag Harbor’s population is below 2500 residents, according to 2000 census data. The same census estimates the county’s population at closer to 1.4 million.
“This law presents some geographical issues in that the village of Sag Harbor is only two square miles and Suffolk County consists of 1,000 square miles,” argues Thiele in the bill. “Accordingly, this presents problems for Sag Harbor Village in that the candidate pool for qualified individuals seeking a position as a village justice is either too small or too large. Further, the village of Sag Harbor is located within the Town of Southampton and the Town of East Hampton.”
“I used the ‘Three Bears’ analogy on this one,” said Thiele on Monday. “Sag Harbor is too small, the county is too large and using the two towns is just right.”
Thiele explained the new state law would enable the village to expand the pool of candidates for village justice in a reasonable way.
According to Thiele, the change in law will have no impact on a suit filed by Sag Harbor attorney Patricia Weiss earlier this month over the village trustees passage of law creating the office of village justice, the first step in a second try at creating a justice court for Sag Harbor residents. The court is proposed to only hear cases involving traffic infractions and violations as well as misdemeanor crimes and would boast one elected justice and another acting justice. Facilities would be located in the village Municipal Building where court would take place in the second floor meeting room often home to village board meetings, with justice chambers in the mayor’s or trustees’ offices.
Weiss’s suit is the second she has filed in relation to a village justice court. In 2006, she halted similar efforts by the village, with the New York State Supreme Court ruling in her favor after finding trustees had not officially passed a paper resolution creating the court.
While trustees were more careful in this last effort, filing a unanimous resolution in support of the village justice law after keeping a public hearing open on the legislation for six months, in mid-June Weiss filed suit with the United States District Court charging the creation of village justice positions violates her rights under the Constitution for a number of reasons, namely that village law does not demand the elected and acting justices be legally trained.
“Those provisions are state wide provisions, not just within the Village of Sag Harbor,” said Thiele on Monday, adding there have been unsuccessful attempts at changing some of the issues Weiss raises in her suit.
“The village will send a copy of this litigation to the attorney general because the state has a stake in this,” he said. “This is nothing the village, specifically, has proposed or done.”