Gimme Shelter: The virtues of justice on display in local election

There’s some old political wisdom that no one really pays attention to elections until after Labor Day. This year, at least for local elections on Shelter Island, people might not be paying attention at all. 

There are no races for Town Board members, supervisor or highway superintendent. The sole election is to choose a judge to the Shelter Island Justice court. Judge Helen Rosenblum is running for re-election on the Republican line and is being challenged by Democrat Stan Birnbaum.

I know them both and would see them around town — before everything changed — at the Post Office, or events like the League of Women Voter’s State of the Town lunch at the Ram’s Head, or the Emergency Services dinner at the Pridwin.

They would stop and chat about this and that. Stan and I were both fans of Jimmy Breslin, the journalist and author, and when he died, we said our condolences to each other. Helen would talk about her work on the “Drug Court,” the regional program where drug offenders are brought in for decisions that are geared more to rehabilitation than punishment.

They know each other well as professionals, working at Justice Hall, with Helen on the bench and Stan defending clients. It’s there, in that tiny, beautiful courtroom, where their characters as people dedicated to the law, civility and respect for an institution is revealed, especially in two instances that the Reporter covered.

Julie Lane covered a case that had taken seven years to finally come to a conclusion with Helen on the bench. It was a case of driving while intoxicated and license plate, insurance and registration violations. The defendant had delayed and delayed, finally insisting on defending himself, which was his right, and Helen granted it to him after discussing the risks involved. To her credit, she never mentioned the idea that a person defending himself has a fool for a client.

But she quietly and courteously helped him, and often had to reason with him as he made loud and unproven charges about the police officer who had arrested him.

As Julie noted in the newsroom when she’d return from court, Helen carefully steered the ship of the trial through many hearings by always keeping on a course to allow everyone their say, and staying away from the wild seas of misinformation and personal attacks. 

At the end, she found him guilty and sentenced him to a month in jail and three years’ probation. “You have everything to live for,” she told him, appealing to him to serve his time and probation without rancor. 

“You’re going to be a better person and you’re going to be a peaceful person,” she said. 

The defendant expressed gratefulness for her leniency, and allowing him a week before reporting to jail.

It was a good conclusion to what could have been an operatic finale. It was justice.

I was called out one cold late evening in December, a week before Christmas, to cover an arraignment at Justice Hall. It was a complex case of alleged home invasion and burglary that the Shelter Island Police Department worked rapidly, arresting three men in Westchester County within a few days and bringing them back to the Island to be arraigned.

In the courtroom, before the proceedings, the men looked stoic, and two of them were trying on nonchalant attitudes to see how they fit. After a while, realizing the small audience, you could see they decided that the could-care-less poses weren’t worth the effort. The other man just seemed stunned. Stan came in and greeted two of the men in soft-spoken tones, including the one who looked like he was in the middle of a nightmare. Quietly, he asked Helen if he could speak with his clients privately and was allowed to take them downstairs for a private conference. 

When they returned and Helen read from the bench aspects of the case and procedures, Stan leaned in to his clients, one by one, speaking slowly, and carefully, explaining what was happening. His concern that they were understanding exactly what was going on struck me as what an attorney is bound to do, and so many don’t. Another lawyer would have waited until after the proceedings were over to let the clients know what had gone down, or maybe just skipped that aspect of advocacy altogether and advised them that he was in charge and would take care of it all. 

The hour or so spent in the tiny courtroom, with the judge and the defense attorney dispatching their duties conscientiously and quietly, paying attention to the spirit and the letter of the law, was a bright light in a dark day.