Nearing retirement, Judge Bill Price reflects on his 36-year career

Anyone who knows Bill Price only from his more than 35 years of serving as a judge in Southold Town might be surprised to learn he didn’t always walk a straight line.

Reflecting on his career and his life before the bench from his office inside a trailer attached to Southold Town Hall, Judge Price said it was a desire that people think of him as more earnest that led him to a legal career in the first place.

“I grew up in Greenport and, well, I was not the most behaved young man,” he said. “I came back right out of law school to practice. It was hard to get anybody to take me seriously.”

A graduate of Albany Law School, he had been in private practice for just four years when he sought the Town Justice seat in 1981. He won with 61 percent of the vote over Democrat John Lee and has since been re-elected eight consecutive times. He has decided to not seek another term, however, and will retire at the end of this year.

“I’ll miss it, but it’s time for someone else,” said Judge Price, whose office walls are adorned with movie posters and images of famous figures including the Rat Pack, Jimi Hendrix, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

His message for the jurist who ultimately replaces him: “Be compassionate and kind.”

Judge Price, now 65, has seen his fair share of cases during his three-decade career. Some of the most memorable proceedings he presided over were a pair of suicides, including a 1988 case in Cutchogue in which an estranged husband killed his wife.

“By the luck of the draw, I got to handle them both and that was heart-wrenching,” he said, adding that he’s also seen “lots and lots” of driving while intoxicated and domestic violence cases over the years.

Judge Price watched the local court system evolve. Before he was first elected, judges had their own chambers in their respective hamlets and each had one clerk. Later the judges’ offices were moved to Town Hall, but were still separated.

Today, he said, the court has started to run in the way he always envisioned it.

It’s more workable, friendlier and went through necessary steps to modernize, although it was not easy to get people who were used to a certain system to accept change.

“Now we have a team here that all works together,” he said. “It’s not like us and them.”

And within the confines of the courtroom, Judge Price sees more diversity and concern about victims in terms of sensitivity to how people are treated.

“There’s been a change in the composition within the legal profession and I think it’s a good thing,” he said,

The judge said he treats people in the court the way he would expect to be treated under the same circumstances.

“I’m not going to treat one of our local citizens who gets a ticket for having an outdated inspection like I’m going to treat someone who’s brought in [wearing] handcuffs on a Sunday morning because they were caught driving while intoxicated the night before,” he said.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Judge Price has never been dogmatic and makes sure that the human component of the law is at the forefront.

“He’s recognized a judge needs to change with culture and with society and he’s been very good at doing that,” Mr. Russell said.

Those changes can be witnessed at the East End Regional Intervention Court, otherwise known as “drug court,” for which Judge Price was recruited to about eight years ago by Riverhead Town Justice Allen Smith, who said he recognized Judge Price’s “depth of experience and knowledge of the East End.”

“He’s one of the best,” Judge Smith said.

Drug court judges volunteer their time and those who do it think it is important, Judge Price said. It’s nothing like criminal court, he said. Judges talk to the “participants,” who are not referred to as defendants, he said, and there is a concern on the court’s part that those people succeed. About 60 percent of people who go through the program are not arrested again, he said.

It changes how people perceive addiction — something that can help with the heroin epidemic, the judge said. The people who come before him in drug court are not bad people; they are dealing with an illness, he said.

“It’s a public health issue, not a criminal issue,” Judge Price said. “Putting people in jail because they’re addicts is wrong. This is what I tell everybody: I never met a young person who said I can’t wait until I can grow up and be a full-fledged heroin addict.”

Valerie Shelby, who attended Greenport High School with Judge Price, called him a “good and fair person” who tries to set young people on the right path.

“I’m very proud of the person he became,” she said. “I know he has a compassion for the youth of our community and to make sure they get their justice. He tries to give them a fair deal.”

If there is anything Judge Price wishes had been different about his time at Town Hall, it’s the Justice Court facility. The room serves as both a court and meeting hall and the double-wide trailer his office sits in has a leaky roof.

The town needs a dedicated court facility, which has been neglected for other projects, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of jury trials here and one of these days we’re going to have to start dismissing the cases against these people for lack of a speedy trial,” he said. “It’s no excuse that the court can’t provide it.”

Mr. Russell agreed that the town needs to consider building a new court.

Judge Price also said the job can be restricting. When judges are on call, they can only leave town for a few hours. It’s 26 weeks on and 26 weeks off, he said. But now, as he’s set to leave the post, he’ll have 26 weekends to see the rest of the country, help out at Maureen’s Haven in Riverhead and find volunteer work that helps young people.

“I am really grateful to the people of the Town of Southold for trusting me with this job,” he said. “Hopefully I have fulfilled that trust.”

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Photo: Southold Town Justice Bill Price on the bench Tuesday. He was first elected to the post in 1981 and has served nine terms. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)