Southold Town Justice William Price has retired from his post on the bench, ending a 36-year tenure throughout which he aimed for compassion in the courtroom.
He’s handled some of the town’s most heart-wrenching cases and took on a volunteer role as a justice on the East End Regional Intervention Court. While he will no longer be an elected presence at Town Hall, he noted in June that he’ll seek out other opportunities to serve the community as a volunteer.
That is why Judge Price is The Suffolk Times’ choice for Public Servant of Year.
The Suffolk Times sat down with the him in June to take a look back at his service as a town justice. Now 66, Judge Price recalled that after returning from law school at the University of Albany, he strove to be thought of as earnest in the community where he grew up.
“I grew up in Greenport and, well, I was not the most behaved young man,” he said, sitting in his office in the Justice Court trailer attached to Town Hall. “I came back right out of law school to practice. It was hard to get anybody to take me seriously.”
But he was taken seriously later, evident from his successful 1981 campaign for a town justice seat and eight consecutive re-elections after that.
Judge Price recalled some of the most memorable and poignant cases he presided over, including a murder in 1988 in Cutchogue and numerous driving while intoxicated and domestic violence cases.
On Dec. 19, the Southold Town Board presented the jurist with a proclamation praising his more than three decades as a public servant.
“I want to say, on a professional level, you’ve been wonderful; on a personal level, you’re far more important to me than I think you know,” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell told him after reading the proclamation.
Town Board members each thanked Judge Price, as did retiring town assessor Robert Scott, who also received a proclamation that day for his dedication, friendship and help over the years. Councilman Jim Dinizio, who also grew up in Greenport, said he always looked up to “Billy” Price.
Fishers Island Justice Louisa Evans recalled her first day in court, when an attorney “loved to make objections.” She called for an adjournment and called the judge for advice. He told her, “Just say no.”
“He gave me more confidence in court,” Ms. Evans said. “I really thank you for that and mentoring me all the way through.”
Eileen Powers of Southold, an attorney with offices in Riverhead, was elected in November to succeed Judge Price on the town bench. She has known him for 25 years, having met him as a young prosecutor in his courtroom. She said she also knew him through her father-in-law, for whom he had worked as a teenager and who always spoke highly of him.
“He was not your standard, cookie-cutter judge,” Ms. Powers said. “He was his own person.”
Judge Price said he made an effort to treat anyone before him in court the way he’d 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 in June.
In the East End Regional Intervention Court, otherwise known as “drug court,” he made clear that participants who were dealing with addiction faced a public health issue, not a criminal one.
Ms. Powers said Judge Price had just two words of advice for her after she won the election: “Do good.”
“I plan to take that to heart,” she said.
Top file photo: Southold Town Justice William Price at the bench in his final year in office. He was first elected to the post in 1981 and served nine terms before retiring last month. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)
2016: Jim Grathwohl
2015: Jack Martilotta
2014: Ted Webb
2013: Heather Lanza
2012: Ed Romaine
2011: Greenport and Southold Highway Department Crews
2010: Leslie Weisman
2009: Betty Neville
2008: Thomas Crowley
2007: Philip Beltz
2006: Jesse Wilson
2005: Martin Flatley
2004: Mattituck-Cutchogue School Board
2003: Ben Orlowski Jr.
2002: Jack Sherwood
2001: Dave Abatelli
2000: Melissa Spiro
1999: Valerie Scopaz
1998: Jamie Mills
1997: Karen McLaughlin
1996: Lisa Israel
1995: John Costello
1994: Ray Jacobs
1993: Judy Terry
1992: William Pell
1991: Beth Wilson
1990: Antonia Booth
1989: Frank Murphy
1988: Venetia McKeighan
1987: Paul Stoutenburgh