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New Southampton Night Court To Begin Hearing Small Claims Soon

Originally Posted: January 09, 2008

Peter Neely

Night Court is expected to fill with small claims cases and take the burden off of the over-extended day sessions. Photos by Peter Neely

Southampton - In her brief address at the first Town Board organizational meeting, Southampton Supervisor Linda Kabot addressed the establishment of a Night Court, which was previously suggested but never implemented under the previous administration of Supervisor Patrick "Skip" Heaney. With a nod from the newly sworn-in Town Board, the weekly Night Court is expected to open for business this month, initially hearing small claims cases on Wednesdays.

"Any time you start something new it takes time," Deborah "Renee" Brathwaite, chief clerk at the Justice Court explained in a phone interview Tuesday. "We are the largest Town Justice Court in the state of New York, as far as volume is concerned, and the largest in Suffolk County as far as revenue is concerned. We are a very busy court. [The Night Court] might make it a little easier, but not reduce the workload," she said.

"The idea came about a few years ago," Supervisor Kabot explained. "The former Supervisor and others thought that [it could] address the backlog in the Justice Court, and to address quality of life issues."

Southampton Justice Court Chief Clerk Deborah "Renee" Brathwaite and Town Justice Thomas J.
DeMayo enjoy a moment of levity between proceedings.

Establishing a night court within the Southampton Town Justice Court could theoretically resolve a number of logistical problems inherent to the busy local Justice Court, including addressing the backlog of the cases and making it more convenient for residents and taxpayers involved with cases to attend in the evening. Scheduling of the night court has just recently been made possible by the election of a fourth judge to the Town Court system, Judge Edward D. Burke, Sr., who will share in the case load but not necessarily be appointed as the Night Court judge as the presiding official will be set on a rotating basis.

Budget Ramifications
The consideration of taking on a fourth judge was also part of the past agenda in Town Hall, Brathwaite explained. "We were talking about a fourth judge for quality of life cases, and adding in [another judge] to move cases along," she said. This opened up the possibility of having a second courtroom running, or, as has been decided, to have the fourth judge presiding over the Night Court.

"Right now, with the fourth judge coming in, we have just added more to our calendar, starting out with small claims. As time goes by we are going to look forward to other cases coming in," Brathwaite added. Unfortunately, as Supervisor Kabot pointed out, because small claims cases often settle out of court, there is very little revenue in these cases for the town, making the budgetary impact of the Court more noticeable.

"The Town Board is disappointed to have small claims on for Night Court. [The Town] only gets $2 per claim for small claims, if we have to pay court officers and clerks, it's costing us money with very little revenues." Kabot went on to emphasize the need to do a complete budgetary impact before the costs, and potential profits of the Night Court, can be quantified.

Chief Clerk Renee Brathwaite and an assisting officer between hearings.

"It does not appear that the implementation of the Night Court in the first quarter of 2008 will profit the town in any way," Kabot explained, emphasizing that it is a goal of the Board and Justice Court to address this budgetary issue by mid-year. "It will have an impact, [the court needs] two court officers, two court clerks, [and] a stenographer, every Wednesday for 50 Wednesdays," she said.

Part of the opportunity to offset costs and potentially profit from the project, would be to vamp up the dockets to include other types of cases, including moving violations, such as traffic tickets, and code violations, including fines associated with breaking building codes. Kabot suggested that dealing with moving violations and code violations to the Night Court could be a more fiscally viable option. "Those revenues stay with the municipality paying for the Justice Court." Currently, the choice to only deal with small claims is due to administrative efficiency, as small claims are the easiest to schedule without having the District Attorney involved, Kabot explained.

"We need special permission from the County District Attorney so the town can handle [traffic violations] instead of the District Attorney's office. There would be a local law, traffic violations bureau, and a procedural change that has to be ratified between the county and the town, [as to] which attorney represents the municipality. [Right now] It's the county prosecutors, which would shift to the town prosecutors for Night Court."

In terms of new hiring, the judges are in line for the operation to be adequately staffed, with the exception of the possible need of one additional court clerk, Kabot said, adding, "Some people have flex time, some will include the 40 hours, some work on weekends, but court officers are here on the weekends. They get time and a half on the weekends."

"I have to address the budgetary impacts, [there is] no money in the budget for clerks and officers - the nuts and bolts of running a [court]," Kabot succinctly stated. "This is one of the key priorities, addressing the staffing and budgetary needs to be implemented."

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