Town of Livonia
Has the Livonia Town justice gone AWOL?
Livonia Town Justice John Kemp is one of Livingston County’s most experienced magistrates, having held his elected office for 30 years.
But since November, Kemp has been spending most of his time in Florida while continuing to hold the office of Livonia Town Justice, collect his salary and, in theory, fulfill the duties of justice.
Kemp returns to Livonia once a month to conduct a single session of court at which all his civil and criminal cases are heard. This is contrary to general practice in Livonia and other town courts where justices to take the bench on a twice monthly basis, spreading their caseloads accordingly.
More seriously, Kemp, residing in Florida, is not available to hear arraignments when a person in Livonia is arrested on a criminal charge. This would appear to be a flagrant violation of the duties of a town judge as they are described in state statute.
Livonia Town Supervisor Eric Gott recently met with Kemp to discuss this issue.
Reporting the meeting to the Livonia Town Board last Thursday, March 15, Gott stated that things “got off to a rocky start,” although both he and Kemp were eventually able to come to a mutual understanding of each other’s positions, “shake hands and part as friends — and vow to communicate better.”
“We certainly didn’t agree,” Gott said. “He felt he was covering 99 percent of his duties. He has rolled his civil and criminal nights into one date, so he feels he is covering his duties.”
During the meeting, Gott reminded Kemp that state statute calls for local justices to arraign criminals whenever called upon, on a 24-7 basis.
Kemp acknowledged the provision but “did not agree that should be the case [in his instance]”.
Kemp will be back to preside over court in April, but at no other time that month. His following session will be in mid-May. Gott pointed out, by that time, it will have been a full six months that Kemp has been residing mostly in Florida, holding sparse court and being unavailable for arraignments.
“He will not be changing his schedule; he made that clear to me.” Gott continued. “He indicated he had worked hard for the town for 30 years; that he was retired, and that he was going to enjoy his retirement. He indicated that he had covered all his basis and felt he was being made a scapegoat now that Steve Sessler has left.”
Sessler, Livonia’s other justice, resigned his position in February, announcing his intent to campaign for the office of Livingston County District Attorney. Sessler’s replacement, newly appointed Livonia Justice David Mahoney, took the bench for the first time last Tuesday, March 13. In the period between Sessler’s resignation and Mahoney’s oath of office, there was no justice performing arraignments in the Town of Livonia.
Gott was recipient of a comment, forwarded by Livingston County Sheriff John York, written by a staff member to York and other officials in the Sheriff’s department and county government.
“This does not bode well for the law enforcement community or the community as a whole, especially the victims. Judge Kemp should resign or do the job. It is difficult enough to find a justice when two are elected, [and] now impossible for us when NO ONE IS AVAILABLE. Being in Florida and flying in once a month is not performing the duties he was elected for.”
Sheriff York, who, it should be emphasized, was not the author of the message, was responding to an email from Gott, who on the subject of Kemp’s absence had opined, “I happen to agree personally that if you are elected to a post then you should do everything in your power to fulfill those duties. I do not believe that you should collect a paycheck and state retirement benefits when you are not available during the winter months.”
Kemp told Gott that he had informed the Sheriff’s 911 Dispatch Center of his unavailability in January. That communication was received Jan. 18.
Supervisor Gott informed the board that Judge Kemp had requested that discussion of his performance take place in executive, closed session, so that only the members of the town board, but not the general public, would be privy to the content. It is, of course, common practice that discussions of employee performances by overseeing municipal and school boards are closed from public scrutiny.
However, in this specific instance, Gott felt that criticism relating to the performance of an elected official ought not to be concealed. Citing his own position as an elected town supervisor who can and had been criticized in public forums, Gott observes, “If somebody wants to talk about me as an elected official, we talk about it.”
Livonia Town Attorney James Campbell advised that the elected or non-elected status of the employee is not as pertinent as the free decision of the board to enter executive session. Campbell described executive session as a “tool or option” which is available to the board, but is not a compulsory requirement.
Judge Kemp comments
Justice Kemp spoke by telephone to The County News on Monday of this week. He has been retired from his full time job since July and for some time had plans to spend his winter months in the south. With a long and sterling record of service to the town, Kemp feels obliged to complete the final year-and-a-half of what will be his last term of office.
During the previous 29 years Kemp habitually began his two monthly court sessions at 6-to-6 p.m., the late hour necessitated by his outside work schedule.
Now that he is retired, Kemp can accomplish the same job in one day by commencing court in the afternoon and working into the evening. The court clerk arranges for the civil cases to be heard first, followed by the criminal.
“I combine the civil and criminal in one afternoon and evening, then get all my bookwork and mail-ins done,” Kemp vouches.
“I had an agreement with the other judge for the very few and far in-between arraignments we do get,” Kemp said, noting that he was not aware of Sessler’s intention to throw his hat into the D.A. race.
“The next thing I knew he [Sessler] was done,” Kemp said.
Kemp has since had conversation with newly appointed Justice Dave Mahoney, who reportedly has no problem with handling any arraignments which occur until Kemp returns in May.
“He [Mahoney] sat in court with me when I was up there last,” Kemp mentioned. “I told him to give me a call with any questions or problems he might have, any time, day or night.”
Kemp further noted that he is flying back to Livonia every month at his own expense to do his job.
He suggests that two town judges agreeing to cover one another’s arraignments is hardly uncommon.
“I’ve known judges who have done this in the past. It’s not like it’s the first time it’s been done,” he added.
“I don’t know why Eric Gott is making so big a deal about it.”