1 – Give me the basics: Who, What, When & Where?
The three Ithaca City Court judge candidates answered questions Tuesday evening at a forum organized by Community Leaders of Color. About 120 people crowded into the gym at GIAC for the 90-minute discussion.
The candidates are: Judge Seth Peacock, who was appointed in early July by Mayor Svante Myrick to fill the vacancy left by longtime Judge Judith Rossiter’s resignation; Kristine Shaw; and Rick Wallace. All are local attorneys. The primary election is Sept. 9.
Six questions were posed by the organizing group, and four questions were taken from the floor. Each candidate was given two minutes to respond to each.
2 – What happened? Any fireworks?
There was one moment when Peacock tried to light some, to differentiate himself from his opponents. He had advocated establishing evening court as a way to give access to people who can’t afford to take a day from work to appear in court, or can’t find the child care to do so.
Shaw said, “I have a feeling it’s not going to happen” because budget constraints on the courts are so tight. Wallace said, “It’s probably not a fiscal reality” for similar reasons.
Peacock bristled and noted that the two candidates both said “it’s a great idea but it can’t happen.”
“I’d be in front of the chief administrative judge” making the case for it, Peacock said. He said if it saves police time and money serving warrants on people who didn’t show up for court appearance in daytime — because the cost was too great for them — then it might benefit the whole system, as well as the individuals who need it.
3 – Any other highlights?
Wallace spoke passionately about a case he was working that day in Auburn, representing a bi-racial family with two young daughters that had been pepper-sprayed by Auburn police. “No one else wanted to take this case,” he said. He said his 24-year legal career has been all about representing people and cases that other lawyers didn’t want because they were unpopular. Sometimes, he said, the most effective way to reform the system is to “sue the bastards.”
Shaw said that as a woman and a lesbian, she knows about safety concerns and can empathize with people of color or anyone who doesn’t feel entirely safe at all times in the community.
Peacock said that as an African-American he is keenly aware in courtrooms in Ithaca and elsewhere that the suits black men wear in court are usually orange. He is aware of the momentary hesitation and surprise when he presents his court ID as a judge.
All three spoke to the power of education and awareness at all levels in the criminal justice system to overcome biases that can result in unjust outcomes.
4 – Was there a lot of talk about “drug court”?
There was. Wallace said he had been involved and familiar with it since it was created in 1998. The intent was to steer alcoholic or addicted offenders into treatment at the earliest possible chance.
Wallace said that in the last 12 years, the number of cases handled through drug treatment court has dropped from 70 to 12. “It’s broken,” he said.
Shaw said she was the only candidate of the three who had experience as a drug court team member, and the only candidate with professional experience working with diverse populations.
Peacock said the screening of suitable candidates for drug court was too subjective and needed to be changed to an objective set of criteria so that more people of color who need it are admitted into the program.
5 – How else did each candidate sell him- or herself?
Peacock cited his 10 years as an Ithaca school board member and other volunteer roles as proof of commitment to community and of concern about its youth. He talked about the value of relationships — inviting children into court to see how the system works; police getting to know people in the community so they can call them by first name in the neighborhoods.
Wallace talked of growing up in Ithaca with best friends who were people of color and of gaining a lifelong appreciation of the city and its diversity. He said, “Love and tolerance should be our code” in the criminal justice system. “Cross-cultural experience” is crucial, he said. More than any institutional reform, that would bring about a fairer system. He touted his depth of experience in the court system as a lawyer.
Shaw talked about raising her children in this community and participating in the drug court team and her advocacy in human rights and welfare cases and on behalf of youth. She said as a judge you “have to be introspective” and ask yourself with each case if the person is being treated the way any other defendant would be treated. She said she supports some of the mayor’s proposals to reform police-community relations, especially cameras on police.
In keeping with the general tone of the evening, the others agreed on that point.