NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - North Salem News caught up with the four judicial candidates to ask them some further questions.
What is your judicial philosophy?
John Aronian: Every Judge takes an oath to ‘seek the truth, and uphold the law.’ While on its face they may seem like a simple directive, it is frequently disregarded by judges who seek to mold the law into something that aligns with their personal beliefs. This is called judicial activism. It is a practice that is in direct conflict with the oath that every judge must take. We are elected as independent and non-partisan servants to the community. It is not our job to decide which laws are to be enforced, and which are to be set aside. We are elected to adjudicate, not to legislate.
Judges are also traditionally viewed as patriarchs of their community, and consequently should possess the values by which a given community is guided.
They must be involved and know their community well. They are held up as role models, and must be individuals who live to the standards of those they represent and preside over. They must walk the walk, and not simply talk the talk.
For a town justice, there is a delicate convergence between applying the law as written, and consideration of local values and concerns. Local judges should use their wide discretion in sentencing to help balance community concerns with the application of the law.
Stephen Bobolia: I tend to be moderate to slightly conservative in my personal outlook on politics and life. Although I cannot but help carry this philosophy to the bench, in my view a judge should not view a case or the parties to the case through either a conservative or liberal lens. A fair and just decision will always be based upon how the facts turn in a particular case with due regard for the stated legislative policy and existing precedent. I don’t feel it is appropriate for a judge to decide cases based upon their personal belief system or how they feel the law should be instead of what it is. To be sure, in addition to being fair and impartial, different situations will necessarily require a judge or justice to be flexible, practical, creative and even strict at times. I can do that.
Robert Leder: A judge should possess appropriate demeanor and judicial temperament, including an ability to deal patiently and considerately with both attorneys and litigants. The best judge I ever appeared before said that he tries to treat litigants the way he would want a judge to treat his mother.
A judge is charged with knowing and interpreting the law and applying it to the facts of the case. Judges must know the intent of a law, legislative history and case precedents. Many statutes instruct a judge how to apply the law. For example, Section 301 of the Family Court Act, which deals with juvenile delinquency, states “the court shall consider the needs and best interests of the respondent (the accused juvenile) as well as the need for the protection of the community.”
A judge should also be committed to public service, particularly judicial service. I have been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for over 35 years and a trial attorney for over 25 years. I served as president of the Bronx Family Court Bar Association for two terms. I am called on frequently to review the applications of judges and magistrates who are being considered for assignment.
A judge should be industrious and committed to hard work; should possess an absence of bias and a commitment to equal justice for all; should possess integrity, candor and an absence of outside political or other influence; and should get along well with and have the trust and respect of other judges and attorneys.
Solomon Schepps: My judicial philosophy is simple: be firm, be fair, follow the rule of law, temper justice with mercy when appropriate, and above all, know what you’re doing. A judge is a human being, so there’s the fair and mercy part. The rest comes from knowing what you’re doing. And here there is no substitute for experience.
As a human being, many of you know me. I’ve lived in North Salem for 26 years with my wife Karen Kalikow, also a lawyer, and our son Danny. We’ve all been very involved in life in North Salem the entire time, as I’ve described elsewhere. I know my neighbors, friends and acquaintances and, most of all, the kids of North Salem. I’ve coached them, mentored them, cooked for them, counseled them and sometimes represented them in court. I know their interests, their habits, their foibles. I understand them and want to see them grow and prosper. As a judge this knowledge is critical.
Now the law.
The law is a living, breathing institution that demands one’s full attention and study. I’ve been studying it as a passion and using it as a tool for 32 years. I am continually learning more about the law in my main field, criminal, the main area of business for the Town Court. I know the law well, in many fields, and am ready to preside over a smooth transition, to keep North Salem safe and peaceful.
Is sentencing designed to punish a convict or provide rehabilitation?
John Aronian: The role of sentencing is threefold – to protect, to rehabilitate, and to punish. The application of sentencing on the local level is unique as it is the only tool a town justice has to reconcile community values with the strict application of the law. Consequently, a main role of sentencing is protection of the community and its values. While there is very little serious crime that comes before North Salem Justice Court, repeat offenders seem to be responsible for the lion’s share of it. Residents need to be protected from criminals, and strict sentencing for repeat offenders serves that purpose. The opposite approach is needed when it comes to first time offenders in a rural community such as ours. As an active community member, a town justice can better evaluate the circumstances surrounding a particular crime, and sentence with an eye toward rehabilitation and education. Finally, punishment is more useful as a deterrent than a remedy. Punishment in the form of incarceration does indeed serve to protect the community and is therefore a valuable tool, but does little to correct the wrong that has been done, or change the behavior of the wrongdoer. Alternative forms of punishment for first time offenders, such as community service or acts toward restitution, have shown to be remarkably effective.
Stephen Bobolia: A prison sentence used as a punishment is not an effective tool to lower recidivism for serious crimes. If it was effective, there would not be a 66 percent return rate of previously convicted offenders returning to prison within three years of release. They are often convicted of a more serious crime on the subsequent conviction. The purpose of prison should be to protect society and keep it safe from the evildoers and attempt to rehabilitate these convicts while they are in the penitentiary. Our tax dollars would be better spent on therapy, job training and other forms of rehabilitation. Even Congress has taken notice that our prisons are overcrowded and is now taking action to change sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. On the other hand, many of the low level violations and misdemeanors that the local town courts deal with are more suitable for punishment in the form of fines with no jail time. One is not likely to drive recklessly after receiving a fine with several points and the possible increase in insurance rates.
Robert Leder: Sentencing is designed to punish, rehabilitate, deter crime and protect the community.
Depending on the circumstances, one might be given more weight than the other. Where the court has discretion, the nature of the crime and circumstances of the convict, victim and community should all be taken into consideration.
When a judge makes a decision to convict or find a person innocent of a crime, or in favor of one civil litigant against another, no person should be treated differently because of their social status or wealth, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, skin color, political alignments or their connections or lack of connections. Each person attending a court should feel certain that they will be treated fairly, and it is the responsibility of a judge to make that happen.
Solomon Schepps: As New York State’s appellate courts have repeatedly held, sentencing may serve four purposes: deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution and isolation. Which one, or more than one, is intended is always unique to the case before the court.
In many cases, crimes may be deemed victimless, that is, no particular person has been directly injured by the arrested person’s conduct. More and more today in these cases, the focus is on rehabilitation, to help the arrested person to be re-integrated into the community as a productive law-abiding person. But add injury to another, be it physical, economic or social and there may be a more predatory element to the person’s conduct. In those cases, sentencing often takes on a retributive color. If the injury is serious, or perhaps of a wider pattern, isolation may become the focus, as incarceration separates the person from the community at large.
All these three aims also send the message of deterrence to the community and to the actor, increasing in alarm proportional to the severity of the criminal act(s), that the conduct at issue is unacceptable and not without consequence. And, of course, sentencing laws are flexible, to give judges the ability to “fit the punishment to the crime,” that is, the particular case before them. My 32 years’ experience in this field, including broad knowledge of how sentencing was meted out in tens of thousands of cases, make me particularly well-suited to be your town judge and to keep North Salem safe and peaceful.
Who is your favorite U.S. Supreme Court justice and why?
John Aronian: Clarence Thomas is a hero of mine. He represents everything that makes America exceptional, and is living proof that our system of governance works. An African American, Thomas was raised by his single mother, a Georgian plantation worker, in utter destitution. Following a fire that left the family homeless, Thomas was sent to live with his grandfather, where he learned the importance of education and self-reliance. He was the only African American in his high school class, and graduated with honors. He later went on to Yale Law School without the benefit of affirmative action programs.
Despite all the hurdles and inequities facing a black man growing up in the South, Clarence Thomas was able to reach the highest legal office in our land, and he attributes his success to his conservative value system and faith in the U.S. Constitution. As Supreme Court Justice, he has been the bedrock of the court with regard to conservative interpretation of the Constitution. He is a textualist, believing that the Supreme Court should interpret the U.S. Constitution in the light of the ordinary meaning of the text at the time it was written. While other justices herald their minority status and life experiences as mandate to re-write the Constitution, Thomas is staunchly opposed to such judicial activism. He looks to his own success as evidence that the Constitution, as written, is a document that deserves the utmost deference with regard to interpretation.
Stephen Bobolia: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is my favorite Supreme Court justice. He is a moderate conservative who believes in judicial restraint and the importance of upholding the doctrine of stare decisis. His conservatism is grounded in and based on following established precedent unless a prior decision is bad law or is now considered unconstitutional and needs to be overruled. He does not believe in judicial activism of some justices that have overly scrutinized legislative policy judgments. A believer in federalism, he gives an expansive reading to the powers of the federal government, but also feels the individual state laws can better speak to an issue than the federal government.
Justice Roberts has put a more moderate or centrist orientation on the Supreme Court with the holdings on the ACA and same sex marriage. I believe his moves to make the court more centrist is where most Americans want it to be and this is indeed a good thing and a salve to all our political polarization.
Robert Leder: I don’t have a favorite Supreme Court justice. Besides, it wouldn’t be appropriate to name a favorite. That might give the impression that as a judge, I favor some views over others.
One of the most important Supreme Court decisions ever, Brown v. Board of Education, was written only one year before I was born. In 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, ‘We conclude that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’
To me, one of the most fascinating justices was William O. Douglas. He was born in 1898 and he thought that objects in nature may have certain rights (an idea that is being debated to this day), and that the First Amendment is intended to guarantee us the right to hear and learn about different points of view as well as express our own.
Another monumental Supreme Court decision was Marbury v. Madison. In 1803, Justice John Marshall found that acts of Congress that conflict with the Constitution are not law and the courts are bound instead to follow the Constitution. This decision affirmed the principle of judicial review.
In my opinion, the best judges, whether at the Supreme Court or town court, are great at balancing competing rights and interests and fairly applying the law. They also treat people fairly and with respect and dignity.
Solomon Schepps: I do not have a favorite Supreme Court justice. Rather I will mention two who I find important, one current and one historical. The current Supreme Court can be divided into two voting blocs. Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts vote together in over 90 percent of the cases the Court decides. Similarly, Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer vote together about 90 percent of the time (Breyer is a little roguish here, but not very much so). Legal scholars typically describe these alliances as political, the Court’s conservative and liberal factions respectively. Justice Kennedy is the swing vote. He is not aligned (by his voting record) with either side. As a result, he often writes the Court’s opinion in cases decided by a 5-4 margin. He de-politicizes the Court by his independence, and is seen as more guided by legal reasoning than by desired result.
Also of importance is Justice John Marshall, the fourth chief justice. His opinions, particularly Marbury v. Madison, emphasized that the United States courts are, by Constitutional design, the third co-equal branch of government, and that they have the responsibility of ensuring that all laws of the United States and acts of its government are consistent with the provisions of the Constitution, as the Constitution itself provides that “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof… shall be the supreme Law of the Land” (Art. VI) (emphasis added).