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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 15, 2009

In Knox
Dems’ Judge Jean Gagnon challenged by GOP’s Donati

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — Democrat Jean Gagnon is running for a second four-year term as town justice, and will be challenged by Republican Bonnie Donati, who also ran in 2007.

The candidates told The Enterprise about their backgrounds this week, and answered questions about issues, such as assigning community service in place of jail time, sentencing someone they know, and public access to court records.

Jean Gagnon

Jean Gagnon, 53, has been judge since 2005.

“I feel, although we are a small court, we still affect individuals’ lives, and, I think the most important thing is that everyone is treated not only fairly, but respectfully,” Gagnon said this week.

She first moved to Knox in 1996.

She has been in the travel business for 30 years, she said, and currently manages Plaza Travel in Latham.

“It’s kind of interesting, because I’ve kind of evolved into a local travel expert,” Gagnon said. “When they need to talk to someone in the travel business, many times they’ll call on me, whether it be loss of service at the airport, or travel trends, or government regulations, or airline proposals.”

As certain skills have allowed her to become a sought-after travel expert, she thinks that the same skills have contributed to her being a good judge.

“You have to be able to gather your thoughts cohesively in a short amount of time, and that serves me on the bench as well,” Gagnon said.

She is also a board member of the Knox Youth Council.

“I’m very involved in the community,” Gagnon said. “We do things like sponsor the annual winter fest, and bus trips, and we’re having a turkey shoot in October. We try to do things for the local community because there isn’t very much up on the Hill.”

Gagnon did not study or practice law before being a town justice, but sees herself as “an effective and compassionate judge.”

Community service, she said, can be an effective tool, if used within the parameters of the law.

“It always depends upon the particular circumstance,” she said. “There are times where, even when you want to assign it, you can’t.”

While Knox is a small town, Gagnon said that she would not likely find herself in a situation where she would be sentencing someone to whom she is close.

“We purposely try to avoid that, which is one reason why there are two justices,” she said. “The other justice and I don’t travel in the same circles. If we’re called in for an arraignment, the first thing we do is ask the defendant’s name. If it were someone where I’ve had dinner at their house, I would recuse myself.”

With regard to public access to court records, Gagnon said that there are certain instances in which records are unavailable.

“In cases of youthful offender status, those cases are closed,” she said. “In cases of minors, or, say someone is the victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse case, that should be private.”

Bonnie Donati

Bonnie Donati, 64, ran for town justice in 2007, but lost to Democratic incumbent, Linda Quay.

Donati was born in Brooklyn. She lived in Knox during the 1980s, moved back to New York City for 15 years, and returned to Knox after her husband, Judge Alfred Donati Jr., died in 1997. Before his death, Mr. Donati was a New York State Supreme Court judge.

Bonnie Donati thinks that her extensive legal background will make her a good town justice.

“I’ve always worked within the law,” Donati told The Enterprise. Now retired from a career as a paralegal, she has worked as an insurance claims adjuster, did a stint at the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, and was in charge of former Attorney General Robert Abrams’s archives during his administration.

Donati thinks that assigning community service in place of jail time can be appropriate, but the punishment must fit the crime, she said.

“If it’s a violent offender, your job is to take them off the street,” Donati said. “That’s a given. But sometimes, it can be a learning situation or a deterrent. A lot of times, the law isn’t just to punish; it’s to teach, and to deter someone from doing it again — especially a younger person. Community service could teach them to respect someone’s property a little more. ‘I shouldn’t have gone knocking someone’s tree over. It takes 20 years for a tree to get to that size,’ for example,” she said.

But if someone has hurt another person intentionally, it’s a different story.

“They don’t belong raking leaves — they belong in jail,” Donati said. “I have no sympathy whatsoever for people who hurt people or animals, and, in this Hilltown, you have to understand that animals are a lot of people’s livelihood, and they take their animals very seriously.”

With regard to sentencing someone she knows, impartiality is the bottom line, Donati said.

“The law is your boss,” Donati said. “You can’t please all the people all the time, so, if you can hammer out an agreement that’s acceptable to all parties, that’s one thing. But, if you can’t, you’re obligated to follow the law. And the law has to come down to the person on the right side, even if the person on the other side happens to be your friend or relative…You go to the law to seek equity and justice, and equity doesn’t always mean equal. Equity is a way to get back something you’ve been denied or something you’ve lost.”

Donati added that she places great value in accessibility to court records.

“I’m also not against having cameras in the courtroom, if people can behave themselves,” she went on. “I think people will learn a lot and have a greater respect for the law if they can see how the process works.”

Still, there are circumstances where access should be limited.

“People would be denied information when it could totally compromise the case,” she said, “and you wouldn’t be conducting a fair trial, because you would be allowing the jury to be influenced by prior acts or public opinion, and that would not be running a fair trial. I learned that from my husband.”

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