Sean M. Walter, who served as Riverhead Town supervisor from 2010 until 2017, is the presumptive winner in the race for Riverhead Town Justice earlier this month.
Walter was sworn in Thursday to the post held by Allen M. Smith, another former town supervisor who died from a brain aneurysm in July; he was 77. Due to a quirk in town law, Walter was sworn in before the election results were certified by the Board of Elections.
Newsday recently spoke with Walter, 54, of Wading River, about his predecessor, the job and the future of the justice court.
Allen Smith was also a former town supervisor. How does that influence being a town judge?
I think the supervisor position gives me a little bit of an advantage because I know a lot of the employees, I hired some of the employees. So, knowing the town employees, knowing the justice court employees, knowing the budgeting situation in the town. If you don’t understand the budget and you don’t understand the inner workings of Town Hall, you’re at a disadvantage. So, I think it’s going to be very helpful to us both, Judge [Lori A.] Hulse and myself as a team.
What are some of the issues this justice court faces?
Unfortunately, it’s the same things that Allen talked about right up until his passing. The Justice Court is overcrowded. It’s unsafe and it’s understaffed. A lot of it has to do with years of budgetary constraints, which I am fully familiar with because some of the issues are issues that existed and were exacerbated during my tenure. Hopefully, when the town recovers financially from COVID we can start addressing the issues of building or relocating a justice court.
What have you been doing since you were last in public office?
I’ve always practiced law, I kept my law practice open even when I was town supervisor. This is a part-time position. I can’t just be a town justice and pay my bills. I do a lot of surrogate’s court work, elder law. We do real estate closings, and I do a lot of zoning and planning. I will still be practicing law, just not in Riverhead.
Why did you choose to run for justice rather than another legislative position?
I didn’t ever think I would run again for office. If they pushed I would say to them, ‘Well, you know, if Allen ever retired or Lori Hulse got moved up to Supreme Court, I would consider that.’ But it wasn’t anything that was real because I just assumed that Allen would be around for a long time.
What do you hope your mark will be on the town?
First, Allen Smith left very big shoes to fill. He was a mentor to me when I first started practicing law 20 years ago. I never worry about my own mark. I want to honor Allen’s legacy as a 20-year town justice by doing the best that I can. But I also want to honor God. I know that God had a lot to do with me being elected to this position.
Riverhead Justice Court is on Howell Avenue in the same building that is home to the town’s police department.
The court hears civil and misdemeanor criminal cases ranging from traffic infractions to town code violations to landlord/tenant disputes.
Town officials have acknowledged that the court, which does not have a protected sally port to transfer those in custody, is too small and have considered relocating or expanding the building.