Two candidates hope to fill Philipstown judge seat
Philipstown justices typically run unopposed. However, when Judge Alan Steiner resigned earlier this year amid allegations of misconduct, three candidates for his job emerged: Democrats Camille Linson and Luke Hilpert and Republican Faye Thorpe. Linson defeated Hilpert in a primary Sept. 13 and now faces Thorpe in the general election Nov. 8. The Current’s Michael Turton interviewed each candidate separately; their responses have been abbreviated.
Both were cautious with their answers. Although judges run on party lines, the New York State Bar Association cautions candidates not to engage in political commentary. (One of the three charges against Steiner was that he posted his thoughts about national politics on Facebook.)
What is your primary motivation for running?
Thorpe: I’ve always wanted to be a judge. I’m very lucky in my position as an attorney with the Putnam County Department of Social Services to be able to use my passion for practicing law as a public servant. Being a judge here will give me the opportunity to give back to our community.
Linson: It sounds corny but I’ve been a big volunteer my whole life, including during my 20 years here in Philipstown. I’m eager to play a positive role in the community. This is a great opportunity to use what I’m good at, my legal skills and experience, to contribute to the town in a broader way.
What in your background makes you a strong candidate?
Thorpe: Experience. I’m in court almost every single day. I know how the courts work and what doesn’t work. I have great relationships and respect for a lot of different attorneys — criminal, legal aid and attorneys of the children. And real-life experience — I’m a little older than a lot of people who would be running for this position. Dedication. I am dedicated in what I do right now and I would certainly be dedicated as a judge. And integrity. I am very conscious of what is ethical and what isn’t. In my position I have to be conscious of that every day.
Linson: My training is extremely rigorous. I studied law at Harvard and Oxford and worked for well-respected law firms in Manhattan and internationally. I’m also open to a broad array of opinions. A town justice must be impartial; it’s not a political position. I have reached out to people across the political spectrum and that’s important. I am also a good communicator with a naturally even temperament and common sense. A judge must be able to communicate with counsel and parties calmly and courteously, even under provocation or when other parties are highly stressed or emotional.
What Do Town Justices Do?
By Kevin E. Foley
Few people contemplate the way local justice is administered unless they find themselves in need of the service. The two Philipstown judges, who are elected in different years and are among about 2,200 town justices in the state of New York, hear both civil and criminal cases on a part-time basis. They are required to be on call 24 hours a day. In Philipstown, the job pays $26,000 annually.
On the criminal side, more often than not they preside over plea agreements between defendants and the district attorney’s office and determine sentencing for misdemeanor offenses, which can include up to a year in prison. People arrested within the town will often be arraigned before a town judge; each of the area villages, such as Cold Spring, also has its own justice court. Justices can also issue orders of protection.
On the civil side, justices hear small claims cases in which the plaintiff is asking for $3,000 or less. They also handle landlord-tenant disputes.
Although Philipstown judges are usually lawyers with trial experience, state law does not require a town justice to have a law degree. This provision accommodates rural areas that may not have credentialed candidates. The state offers training for new justices and all are required to keep up with continuing education courses. Justices can continue in private practice but cannot appear before any town courts within the county where they live.
Over the last 15 years, the two main political parties have allowed each other to nominate a candidate in Philipstown without opposition. So Alan Steiner, a Democrat, faced a challenge when elected in 2000 but had no opponent in 2004, 2008 or 2012. Stephen Tomann, elected in 1995 in a three-way race with Steiner and Louis Liotti, has been unopposed in the five votes since. As elected officials, justices are expected to go through a political process without behaving politically.
Should the Philipstown, Cold Spring and Nelsonville courts be merged or continue to operate independently?
Thorpe: I don’t have enough detailed information to have an absolute opinion on that. Off the top of my head I don’t think it would be a good idea.
Linson: I leave that to the town and the villages. Regardless, public servants should always seek enhanced efficiency.
Should judges be politically independent rather than elected on party lines?
Thorpe: I would personally like it better if you had to be independent. I try to explain it is really a nonpolitical position. I’d be all for running on a nonparty line for such a nonpolitical position.
Linson: The theory is that judges are politically independent even though they are elected. It’s tough because even with appointments there’s the possibility of political influence. The advantage of having an elected judge is that it is the choice of the people. I am confident that judicial candidates and justices understand that their role is apolitical.
What issue do you see as being of most concern to the Philipstown community?
Thorpe: The heroin epidemic. In such a small community it hits us so hard. We all know every single young adult we’ve lost. That’s why I’m getting involved with Philipstown Communities That Care. And I have a large network of providers and professionals in that area who I deal with every day. The gun issue is also a big concern such as the safe-storage ordinance that’s before the town attorney now. All I can say is I’ll abide by any law that comes before me.
Linson: The drug problem is an enormous concern; the marked increase over the past years and tragic drug deaths among our town’s young people. And there’s been increased local attention to gun control and responsible gun ownership. But again I would stress it’s not the justice’s role to determine policy. It’s our job to apply the law and to explain it to people in a manner that’s understandable.
Are current drug laws too lax or too strict?
Thorpe: I don’t think they’re too lax. We need more education. When we look at a defendant before the court we need to make a determination: Does this person need help? How can we help them? It’s not always about locking everybody up. We have to look case by case.
Linson: I can’t comment on that. It’s political and speaks to policy. It’s a tough one and such an important issue. I’d love to shine a light on that but feel I need to stay clear of any perception that I’m commenting on something politically.
Is there an aspect of local courts and law enforcement that you think could be improved?
Thorpe: I don’t know — I’m not on the other side of the bench yet. I’m guessing they could probably use more space. Every court could use more space. I can’t see any issues offhand I have a problem with.
Linson: Again I am going to suggest that is probably a political question.
Is the current legal aid system in Putnam County adequate?
Thorpe: I deal with Legal Aid every day. They have very fine, good attorneys. The system we have right now is working. One improvement would be more funding to hire more good attorneys.
Linson: Legal aid is a super valuable system. It’s important that anyone who comes before the court has adequate representation. Again it’s not for me to say — I can’t comment if Putnam County has a good system or bad. Even in the best of systems it’s incumbent upon us to continually seek improvement.
Many charges are routinely reduced in local courts. If someone is charged with doing 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, why should that be reduced?
Thorpe: A lot of times it’s for judicial economy. Caseload is a major reason — otherwise you’re going to have a lot more trials. But if it isn’t your first time getting a speeding ticket you’re not going to get pleaded down, believe me. The judge still has the right — even if the attorneys agree on a plea — to not go along with that.
Linson: There are good arguments for and against plea-bargaining. It’s imperfect but in a crowded legal system cases are resolved more quickly through a plea bargain than if they are argued. No case is a sure thing and plea-bargaining provides certitude of outcome for both sides. The appropriateness of plea-bargaining depends on the facts and circumstances and each case should be examined individually to determine if a plea bargain is reasonable.
What should voters keep in mind as they cast their ballot?
Thorpe: I’m an experienced attorney. I have experience in the court system, which would allow me to hit the ground running Jan. 1 when the term begins. And I’m a member of the community. People know me. They know what I stand for — that I’m reasonable and fair.
Linson: I’m extremely well prepared to serve as an effective town justice. My background — my legal training and practice demonstrate that I possess the qualities needed for a good town justice — and I am dedicated to this community.