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Justice Hall’s long road to court

Shelter Island Justice Hall in the Center.

recent visitor to Justice Hall told Court Clerk Nancy Kotula this was the first time he’d been inside the small, Greek revival building in the Center.

“That’s a good thing,” Ms. Kotula said, smiling.

Although the courtroom, no more than 500 square feet with 12-foot ceilings, is small, it has a large presence, immediately giving the impression that this space has a somber purpose, but is in no way forbidding.

Part of its welcoming nature is achieved through walls painted the palest green, set off by white molding and brightly polished wooden floors. The witness and jurors’ box, as well as the judge’s bench, are masterfully constructed from a light, maroon-colored wood.

An annual New York State grant, the Justice Court Assistance Program, usually for about $30,000, helps with upkeep of the building. A resolution was passed by the Town Board on September 28 authorizing the request for the grant for next year.

The view from the bench in the courtroom of Justice Hall.

The judges’ bench includes desks for the clerk and court reporter. When court is in session — everything from parking tickets to the rare jury trial — a police officer stands next to the bench and room is made, Ms. Kotula said, when an interpreter is required. Most often interpreters for Spanish are requested, but on occasions there have been Polish interpreters.

“We had Lithuanian, once,” Ms. Kotula said. “That was tricky.”

Judge Mary-Faith Westervelt noted that the bench once was located with the judge’s back to one of the windows. After a security review of the building, it was suggested that blinds be installed and the bench be placed at the center of the back wall, and not in a place, the judge said, “where people could have a clear shot of the judge’s back.”

Another security precaution is the 35 chairs for the audience are locked together, replacing folding chairs. The change was made when a defendant before Judge Helen Rosenblum picked up a chair and threatened to throw it at her.

With judicial restraint and understatement, Judge Rosenblum said last week that the man “has temperament problems,” and that she actually likes him, except when his passions get the best of him.

“I calmed him down,” she said, with help from an attorney in the room.

All American

The building, fashioned on ideas about Greek temples, was constructed some time in the 1930s (the Town Assessor’s office and the Historical Society couldn’t provide exact information), the same kind of architecture that defined the centers of thousands of small towns across America.

These buildings were municipal offices, banks and utilities. On Shelter Island, Justice Hall’s provenance contains all three.

It first housed Shelter Island Light and Power. The utility, Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar said recently in her office, bought power from the Village of Greenport and then sold it to Islanders. At one point Ms. Ogar worked in the office of the Island’s power company, and recalled that later New York Bank opened a branch there, taking half the space.

What is the courtroom now was then “divided right down the middle,” Ms. Ogar said. There would be two lines of people, withdrawing money from one desk and moving over to the other line to pay their electric bills.

In 1959, Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) took over from Shelter Island Light and Power and the bank moved on.

Government finds shelter

In a 1968 referendum, the people voted to purchase the building from LILCO. According to the Town Clerk’s office, on October 14 the Town Board passed a resolution to buy it for $17,500. (The town’s budget for 1968 was $282,000.)

After the sale, the building was used to hold Town Board and committee meetings; the Building Department was located in the basement. It wasn’t Town Hall, however, but an annex. The supervisor, the Town Clerk, Town Board members and other town personnel had offices from July 1932 until the move down the block in 1999 in what is now Police Department headquarters.

With the town’s purchase of the present Town Hall, where a meeting room and offices could be in one place, the old bank, utility and municipal building became Justice Hall.

Time for justice

There’s a large, handsome, circular clock over the back wall, above the short hallway that leads to the judges’ chambers and Ms. Kotula’s office. The clock looks like an antique, with arrows for hands and the hours marked by Roman numerals.

It found its way here in a typically Shelter Island way. Several years ago, Fire Marshall Arthur Bloom noticed that the courtroom clock was small and not terribly attractive. An upgrade was in order, he thought.

“I got it on eBay,” Mr. Bloom said about the impressive clock overlooking the courtroom. “Twelve dollars.”

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