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Maura Kennedy-Smith

Maura Kennedy-Smith is a local attorney running for Lansing Town Justice on the Democratic Party line.  She is a Lansing native, but her family moved to Ithaca when she was a small child.  She graduated Cornell University and went to NYU Law School.  After a few years working in New York City she moved back to Ulysses, and back to Lansing with her husband Bill and two children (ages 9 and 7) five and a half years ago.  Her parents have lived in Lansing for 20 years.

Kennedy-Smith is principal court attorney for County Court Judge Joseph Cassidy, who also serves as an acting Supreme Court judge, which gives Kennedy-Smith the opportunity to work on the full spectrum of cases, principally felonies, family court cases, wills, guardianship, and property disputes among others.  Kennedy-Smith says there would be no problem with working and acting as Town Justice, because the Office of Court Administration is flexible about when Town Justices can hold court and notes that many town justices have full time jobs.  She has spent many hours in Lansing Town Court when she was a practicing attorney, both representing clients there and observing while waiting for her cases to be called.

Lansing Star Lansing Star: Why do you want to be a judge?

Maura Kennedy-Smith Maura Kennedy-Smith: I really enjoy the work I do for Judge Cassidy.  I think it utilizes my skills that I built up being an attorney.  I think I have that unique set of experiences, having worked, now, for five years as a court attorney for a judge.  I really understand the process of what goes into making these decisions, and all of the considerations a judge needs to have when making them.

Having had that experience and really enjoying working with the judge, when I learned that this position came up in Lansing.  I felt like I had a unique skill-set and set of experiences that I can bring to this job.  I see that as a way that I can really help my community and make a meaningful impact here.

Lansing Star This election has spawned a debate in the community about whether a town justice should be an attorney, even though state law does not require it.  What do you think about this and given that you are an attorney, does that make you the best candidate?

Maura Kennedy-Smith I certainly think it's preferable to have a judge who is an attorney.  I understand it's not required, and I have appeared in front of many, many town justices who were not attorneys who did a really good job.  So I certainly wouldn't suggest that you have to be an attorney to be qualified at all for the position.

But certainly, having a background in the law brings a whole extra level of understanding to the position, especially from day one having that knowledge is really important.  When Judge Cassidy has a trial he tries to anticipate what kinds of legal issues are going to come up, what kind of rulings he is going to have to make.  He tries to research those and prepare for those before they come up.  That's something you learn in law school.

It's called 'issue spotting', which means if you're given a certain set of facts in a legal proceeding involving those facts, trying to figure out what are the legal issues that are going to come up in that proceeding.  That's something I've been trained to do since... I've practiced law for 19 years, and three years before that going to law school.

So from day one I'm going to be looking at cases with those things in mind.  And I already have a lot of experience and already know the way that a ruling should go, and, if I don't, I know how to research that and make that determination so I'll be as prepared as possible before having to make those kinds of rulings.

The law is very complicated.  In there Lansing Town Court there are issues like suppressing evidence that has been illegally obtained.  Whether or not, at a trial, you can use a person's prior bad acts as evidence against them.  That's not always permissible.  There are limited circumstances where you can do that.  So I think it's very important to have somebody who is going to be looking at cases through that lens, and already be prepared to make those kinds of rulings.  That's the main advantage.

Lansing Star As a judge would you be more letter of the law or spirit of the law?

Maura Kennedy-Smith I think you have to be 'letter of the law'. 

Sometimes the law isn't clear.  Laws change.  There may be a statute that just hasn't had an opportunity to work its way through the courts, and sometimes judges are confronted with not having a lot of precedent that they can rely on to make a decision.  In that  case you may have to say 'what does this letter mean?' and go more with the 'spirit'.

I think it's important you go with the letter of the law.  That's something that judges are required to do, follow the law.

Lansing Star Because town judges are elected there is a political element.  How would you keep your political/philosophical beliefs separate from your judgement in the courtroom?  Given that you are elected by a majority, should you?

Maura Kennedy-Smith That's a very good question.  That's something people have been talking about a lot recently.  Yes, I agree and believe that judges should be apolitical.  What you want is a judge who knows the law, applies it fairly, looks at every individual case that comes in front of them as an individual case and doesn't have a preconceived set of notions about a particular situation.

It is an interesting system that we have elected judges.  Because of our two-party system one candidate may be endorsed by one major political party  and the other another.  But I think particularly for this level of election, a town justice election, unlike, say, the Supreme Court where they are interpreting laws, interpreting the constitution, setting precedent... in town courts you really are adjudicating circumstances in people's lives.  What's important is that you apply the law to those circumstances.

So a lot of hot-button political issues are just not going to come up in the decision a town justice has to make, unlike, say, an appellate court judge.  For that reason I don't think that politics comes into it as much.

Lansing Star If you feel sorry for a person because you think he or she didn't know any better... would you go easy on them?

Maura Kennedy-Smith Ignorance of the law is not a defense.  Certainly there are things that you would look at in sentencing somebody.  Assuming they've been convicted, there are considerations about what led to them committing the crime.  Were they the primary actor, or maybe going along with a friend?  All those kinds of considerations are there.  You want to look at whether there is any kind of insight or whether they have expressed remorse, whether they're taking responsibility for their actions.  There are a lot of things that you would consider going into sentencing.

Certainly somebody who didn't seem to know any better, also depending on what they did of course -- if somebody didn't know any better and they committed a really heinous crime... that's alarming -- certainly that would be different from somebody who said 'yes, I knew better.  i knew this was wrong.  I wanted to beat that person up because I was angry.'  It might be a factor, but it wouldn't be the sole determining factor that would come into play with me.

Lansing Star Do you think judges should be elected or appointed?

Maura Kennedy-Smith I see pros and cons to both of those.  I think at the town justice level an election does make sense.  They like to say that 'town courts are the courts closest to the people'.  And they are often most people's only contact with the justice system, be it a minor traffic offense, or having committed a minor criminal offense.  Or, say, a landlord-tenant proceeding, or even a small claims proceeding.  They are the courts that most people are going to find themselves appearing in.

For that reason I think it's good to have a judge who is responsive to the needs of the community.

I have to say that I understand arguments on both sides between electing and appointing judges.  I think both have some problematic aspects, and both of them have some good aspects to them.

Lansing Star What are your thoughts on Alternatives to incarceration?

Maura Kennedy-Smith I think it's really great and we're very fortunate here in Tompkins County to have such a strong Alternatives to Incarceration program.  Especially at the town court level I think it's really important, becase it's often somebody's only contact with the criminal justice system.  Or even the people who, unfortunately, do have more contact, this is often their first time committing some kind of minor offense.  I think that we really need to take that as an opportunity to find out what is going on with someone that led to him committing a crime.  If there are any services that we can order them to undergo, for instance if substance abuse is an issue, make sure that they get a substance abuse evaluation and follow whatever kind of treatment is available.

All those kinds of things I see as an opportunity, not just to help the individual that's appearing in front of you in court, but also it helps the community as a whole.  Because they find that when people do receive services early on, they are less likely to re-offend.  That makes our community a better place for everybody.

Lansing Star In a local court like ours you will certainly know some of the defendants. How will you handle those situations? Will there be problems dealing with residents you have ruled against in a small community?

Maura Kennedy-Smith  That's just part of the job.  We live in a small community, and yes, you may sentence somebody and bump into them a the Lansing Market.  It's something that can happen.

If a judge is too familiar with a person, if they have too much of a personal relationship with them that they feel it's going to impact the way they rule, they should be recusing.  Certainly if tht comes up I would have to do that.  But if it's someone that I don't know that well and I can still treat them as fairly as someone that I didn't know... I see it as just part of the job of helping the community as a whole.

You have to deal with people in the community.  As long as you are treating people fairly and they feel they have been heard, and they feel like the process was fair -- and that would be my goal -- then I don't think it's something I could feel bad about it.  And I hope that would be the way people would perceive their experience in court if I were the justice.

Again, that's another thing that research shows is likely to reduce recidivism.  When people feel like they've actually been heard and that the process was fair, even if they may not have liked the final outcome or the final sentence that they received, they are much less likely to re-offend in a case like that.

Lansing Star How much should a judge be directed by the DA (or defense attorney) in Town court?

Maura Kennedy-Smith I think that's actually one of the arguments for having a judge who has extensive legal training.  Because we're sometimes dealing with traffic offenses that aren't actually crimes, or very low level criminal offenses, a lot of people choose not to get an attorney.  And you don't have a right to an attorney for some of these traffic offenses.  Then, with the lower level criminal offenses sometimes people are offered a plea deal and they want to get it over with so they don't try to get an attorney.

So I think that is really important when you're dealing with unrepresented people, that a judge be aware of what the legal issues are, what the law is, so that they can not be directed by one side having the advantage of having legal representation without the other.

That's one of the things that I really feel makes me such a strong candidate for this position.  I do have experience in all of these areas of law.

Another area where you frequently see people unrepresented is landlord-tenant proceedings.  Rarely are tenants represented, because often the majority of them are there for non-committed rent.  So they can't afford an attorney.  There is a legal services organization in town, but a lot of people don't know about it or have difficulty accessing it.  So a lot of landlord-tenant proceedings involve one party who is represented and another who isn't.

There are actually a lot of really strict procedural laws when it comes to evicting a tenant.  You have to give the right kind of notice.  You have served the notice in the proper manner, in the proper time frame.  There is actually a lot of things that do come into play.  So it's important, I think, for a judge to at east be aware of those issues so that if it looks like an injustice is being carried out because somebody isn't represented, there's somebody who is aware that it is being carried out, and can hold the attorney who is on the case accountable for having to show that the disposition they're looking for is actually the correct disposition under the law.

Lansing Star What haven't we talked about that voters should know about your candidacy?

Maura Kennedy-Smith The reason I'm running is that I think that I have a really unique opportunity to bring something important to this community.  I think it's important to serve, and my career as an attorney has always been devoted to public service law.  I always took those lower-paying jobs that were more geared towards helping people.  And now I work as a public servant as part of the court system.  I think all of that is really important and I see it as a way that I can give back to the Lansing community.

I try to teach my kids that if you want to make the world a better place and you care about your community you have to get out there and be involved and do that.  That's what I'm trying to do this year.

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