Among the many other races happening on Nov. 6, the Town of Lansing will have the chance to vote for a new Town Justice as long-time judge David Banfield has decided to retire. On the Republican and Independence lines is Dick Costello, Chair of the Town of Lansing Republicans, and a retired PGA Golf Professional. On the Democratic and Lansing Lighthouse lines is Maura Kennedy-Smith who currently serves as the principal court attorney for Tompkins County Judge Joseph Cassidy. Tompkins Weekly sat down with both candidates to learn more about their histories and their platforms. Answers to the Q&A have been edited for length and clarity.
Maura Kennedy-Smith grew up in Ithaca and attended Cornell University before going to law school in New York City at New York University School of Law. After law school she returned to the area to work at Neighborhood Legal Services before opening her own practice. Her parents have lived in Lansing for 20 years, so six years ago Kennedy-Smith said she moved to the area because Lansing was the community she wanted to raise her kids in.
Currently she works as the principal court attorney for Tompkins County Judge Cassidy. She entered the profession of law because she enjoyed the analytical aspects of the job and she wanted to help people. She said she decided to stay in the area because it was important to her to start with the community she lived in. Outside of her work she coaches her daughter’s softball team, and a second-grade team of the Lansing Lego League.
What made you decide to run for Lansing Town Justice? It’s important for me to give back to my community. I bring a really unique set of on-point credentials and experiences to the position, both with my legal experience but also working with the community of people who appear in Lansing Town Court. We are fortunate here where we have two candidates who really care about their community, but really what it’s about is who can best serve the community. I really believe that I have a unique set of qualifications such that I’m going to be the best person to do that job because the job is about the law.
What does this job mean to you?Well, it’s a way to give back. I currently am the court attorney for a county court judge so I have that unique perspective of seeing what happens behind the scenes in a judge’s chambers, the kind of thought processes that a judge goes through, the consideration that the judge has to have, and so I feel like I have that understanding – certainly it’s second-hand, so my judge is making all the decisions – but I’ve observed that process and participated somewhat in the process. So, I think that’s really something that I would bring. It’s not just what I would bring to the community. It’s also important to me to show my children, if you want to make the world a better place you have to be active, you have to get out there and do something, and I just really believe that this election, as a town justice in a community that I live, I think it’s just the best way that I can serve my community right now at this moment.
Let me rephrase the question, what does the position of town justice mean in your eyes? When you think of taking over the position, how does the town justice impact the community? So, a town justice, they preside over misdemeanor crimes and violations, landlord-tenant proceedings, small claims proceedings, and then some other violations like traffic and local law violations. So, it’s important to have a justice that’s familiar with those laws and able to apply those laws in a fair and impartial manner. It’s important to have a temperament – meaning their calm, they’re not going to lose their patience - when people are in court they’re usually not happy to be there. So, I think you really need to be able to let people know that you see how they’re feeling and the place that they’re in and let them feel heard, let them feel they’re being treated fairly. I think it’s also really important to be aware of the challenges and barriers that the people in the court may be facing and what services we have in the community that can help them... And that’s something that because of my works in the court system and with the population that also appear in the court system, I’m very familiar with those things.
Of course, what you’re trying to do is serve justice. So, you are not only trying to help the person who is coming in front of you but also need to consider what’s best for the victim of a crime and what’s safest for the community. So, all those considerations need to be balanced and looked at on an individual basis, just depending on the unique set of circumstances of any case that comes in front of you.
What experience do you bring to the positions? I have the background in the law. So, not just having been an attorney for almost 20 years, the cases that I handled as an attorney are literally the cases that are in this court. I did some criminal defense, I started off doing misdemeanor-level offenses in these local courts here like Lansing, Dryden, all the ones around here. And then I also did up to felony-level appellate cases as well but that’s how you learn the law. I represented both landlords and tenants in landlord-tenant proceedings and that’s important too because the law can be very technical especially if the tenants have any kind of federal subsidies with their rent. There’s some pretty complicated federal regulations that sometimes come into play and a lot of people aren’t aware of those if they haven’t had much opportunity to encounter them but that’s something that I did as part of my career.
What do you want people to know about you?I’m really doing this because I want to serve the community and it’s something I just believe I have something to give back. A town justice role, as you probably know, doesn’t require a person to have a law degree. In fact, many town justices don’t have a law degree. And often these justices can do a really great job, but it certainly is a great advantage to have that and experience behind you, and that’s something that I’ll be ready for from day one, with that skill set and knowledge and also familiarity with the community. I just felt like I wanted to get more civically involved, the opportunity came up, and I just felt like it’s a perfect fit given my qualifications.
Did you ever expect to be running for a position like this?If you had asked me maybe five years ago I would have said no. I was quite happy in my practice of law, I really enjoyed working with people and I liked the legal community here, my colleagues in the legal community were always a pleasure to work with. I really did not have that on my radar until more recently, working for Judge Cassidy. The behind the scenes look at what a judge really does, that part that may not necessarily be visible to the public, I really enjoy the process of thinking about cases, doing the legal research to figure out what is the proper legal outcome, and then, again, trying to figure out what is the most just and fair disposition of a case, and so I said “This is something that I can do,” and then I didn’t necessarily set out to run for Lansing Town Justice, it’s not something that’s been on my mind for a long time, in fact I don’t think I expected Judge Banfield to be retiring this year. But when I heard about it I said “That’s something I think I can really do to help my community,” so that’s why I decided to run. A lot of people in the community, including the legal community, encouraged me to run.
Dick Costello grew up in Waverly, New York but made his home here in Tompkins County when he was recruited by Cornell University in 1973 to be a teaching professional at the Robert Trent Jones golf course, owned and operated by the University. He would work there until 2000 when he left and began coaching the SUNY Cortland Women’s Golf Team. For a short time he was hired as the head golf professional for the city of Boca Raton, Florida. As a PGA Golf Professional, he was voted the Teacher of the Year from the Central New York PGA, and Golf Professional of the Year. In 2010 he was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame of Central New York.
What made you decide to run for Lansing Town Justice?Because I want to be involved in the lives of people that perhaps I can help.
But why this specific position? Because I’ve been encouraged highly by other judges. And I go back to my original answer about helping people. That’s my main platform.
So, what does the job of Lansing Town Justice mean to you? What kind of impact are you hoping to have?I’ve lived here 46 years. I know the people, I know the pulse of the community. I spent my entire years in public service as a PGA golf professional. Which most people don’t understand what that is. It’s serving a multitude of people, not only helping them with their golf game but helping them through life. Being a confidant, dealing with different egos, different self-interests, a variety of people problems throughout my entire years as being PGA golf professional, and I wanted to transfer those people skills that I obviously have or I wouldn’t be carrying those awards, I want to carry that to a different level of service. I would emphasize that the PGA Golf Professionals middle name is service. You are a service to your facility. And I want to transfer that service and those public relations skills and those decision making abilities that I possess – those awards, you don’t get them given to you – I want to transfer that to the court.
What experience do you bring to the position? I just answered that one also.
Is there anything you can take from your time at Cornell University that you could apply?I can apply my entire life, that I can apply.
Can you give me a little more detail? I was in the public service business for a lifetime and I go back to being a PGA Golf Professional, I go back to winning the top three awards that are given out in the industry. I won them all. There’s a reason I won them all. Because I’ve been involved with people, their problems, problem solving. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to console Cornell students over a period of time that had very serious personal problems at home, they’ve come to me on many, many occasions to seek my council. I’ve been in the people business, that’s my whole career, is the people business. If you did research on what a PGA Golf Professional does you would understand the words I’m using. We are a service-oriented organization. And I had just a super career as a PGA Golf Pro. Those skills I can take to the position.
What I’m trying to ask is specifically how those skills transfer to a judge position. If elected, how would you utilize those skills? I would answer you like this. I would apply the law evenly, apply the principles of innocence until proven guilty, diligently study the facts of each case and use my best judgement to figure out how to administer justice, I’ve always had a great respect for the rule of law my whole life and I’ll take this responsibility very seriously. I am available full-time, 24 hours a day. That’s what this job requires and I have all that time.
What do you want people to know about you? I want them to know that I served on the President of the United States Flag Ship in the Navy, the floating White House. Not every ex-sailor can say that. I would explain this to you: if there was a 9/11 in my day, the President would have been flown to my ship to run the country from my ship at sea, with two nuclear submarines as our escorts. It was tremendous if you think about it. We housed the President of the United States. Not to mention the security clearances for that detail. I was in the Navy six years. I was in the Navy from ’65 to ’71. I’m an active member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. I am an active New York State Hunter Safety Instructor, been doing that since 1973. Received several awards from New York state for hunter education.
Did you ever expect to run for a position like this?Yes, absolutely. I did. I’ve been encouraged by other judges to do it over a long period of time. It was strongly suggested to me that when I retire from Cornell I do this. I wasn’t quite out of my golf world, I was recruited by Cortland State to coach the women’s team. I was recruited by the City of Boca Raton to serve as their head golf professional. So, I continued in that realm of golf, I stayed in that world. And then, as time went by, I gave more and more thought, with more and more encouragement, to go the route I’m going now.
What does a Town Justice do?
With the upcoming race, Tompkins Weekly reached out to Lansing Town Judge David Banfield, who is retiring this year, to learn more about the scope of the job, the hours, the ups, and the downs.
The Town of Lansing is the territory that the Justice covers, but Banfield said Town Justices are allowed to cover adjacent courts or towns if those neighboring justices are unavailable, but only for arraignments.
Town Justices have the power to ordain weddings anywhere in the state. Banfield had his own personal rule that he would only marry people that he knew, a highlight of the job that he chose to do for free.
Town Justices can handle any case for arraignment, this includes felonies, misdemeanors, and violations. But, they can only handle the actual case up through the misdemeanor level (a crime punishable by up to a year in jail).
Lansing and Dryden are often tied as second busiest town court in the county after the Town of Ithaca. Banfield said a large portion of the arraignments that he handles have to do with traffic violations. Misdemeanors like petty larceny or theft are prominent in the Lansing court due to the Shops at Ithaca Mall being situated within the Town of Lansing borders, and Banfield estimates they make up around 20 percent of the cases he hears. Domestic issues like assault and violating an order of protection make up around 10 percent of his cases. Then there are violations like fishing without a license or allowing your dog to run loose and harass the neighborhood. Occasionally, Banfield said he has had arraignments for serious felony-level crimes.
The town justices meet once a month with the county District Attorney to discuss plea bargains, sentencing, and whatever else needs to be done. Town justices have the power to set bail under certain rules and regulations, release under the supervision of probation, or release the accused under their own recognizance.
Town justices can also handle small claims cases, but only have the power to award up to $3,000.
Within his court Banfield has heard cases involving youthful offenders, people arrested for a crime who are under the age of 18. The records are sealed and they are not heard in the general courtroom. Most of these are minor offenses like petty larceny.
Occasionally a town court will hear a jury trial with six members of the jury as opposed to the typical 12. Town justices can also do bench trials for violations. In this case, the accused and the arresting officer will both testify and make their case and the justice will make their own determination.
The hours for the job can be unpredictable, Banfield said. He’s worked as many as 60 hours a month before. The salary is only $18,000 a year.
As a judge, Banfield has spoken to classes of young students about his job and what it means. He keeps many of their letters in his office as a reminder of the positive side of his position. He has invited students to come see him work in the court, busting out the lemonade and cookies when they do come to see him in action.
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