Village of Westbury Justice Thomas Liotti donated his Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Award, had his say, and sat down.
Mayor Peter Cavallaro couldn’t help joshing, “I’m going to say something that no one has said about Tom ever—two things, actually. One, that was extraordinarily brief (laughter). And he was extraordinarily modest in what he said. This award was not given to the village by the county. It was given to Tom Liotti because of his work in the causes that are important for all of us, really—social justice and civil rights.”
Following the reorganization meeting, the mayor announced, “We’re going to accept a generous donation that Judge Liotti has made to the village.”
The mayor called the award “a really prestigious honor and all in the spirit of making this room a place of reverence, where we abide by the honorable law. Because again, this is not only our meeting room, but also a court.”
The award took the form of the sculpted head of Dr. King and it was presented to Liotti in 1997 by Nassau County and the county’s Human Rights Commission.
The citation read that Liotti was being honored for his “More than 30 years of extraordinary work as a lawyer, judge and community activist.”
The judge asserted that the village deserved the award as well.
In a statement, Liotti said, “I have been very proud to live and work in this multi-ethnic, racial and religious community for most of my life. It has been my honor to serve this community.”
He mentioned the bust of Lincoln in a corner. He donated it back in the fall of 2019, and it rested on a pedestal created by Domenico Buffolino of Westbury.
Pointing to various walls in the room, Liotti highlighted the copies of milestones in law hanging upon them, such as the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights (gifted by students of the Powells Lane Elementary School in Westbury), the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence (a gift of Associate Justice Elizabeth Pessala).
Liotti picked up a framed commemorative collage showing, among other things, a photograph of the award ceremony. He pointed out to Karin Campbell of Westbury, who was in the audience, that her father, former Trustee Alphonse Campbell, was in the crowd of well-wishers.
“I wanted to share this award because I think it belongs to the entire community. It really is in good hands and will be a commendation to the Village of Westbury,” Liotti said. “So what I’ve tried to do is really build a model court for our village. And I think that’s what the mayor has done in terms of building a model village that everyone looks up to.”
He referred to Cavallaro as “our illustrious mayor, who’s the best thing since apple pie,” as Cavallaro waved off the praise.
“Tom and I haven’t always agreed on things. We’ve had our disagreements,” Cavallaro admitted. “But I think we’ve always had a mutual respect for each other. Because what he does, not only here in the village court. He’s been judge for 30 years. He was preceded by Judge Molloy, who was a judge for more than 40 years. So we’ve had two judges, basically, for the last 75 years. The amount of continuity that’s created as Tom said, to make this a model court. The lowest court in the system is a model for the justice courts in the state and basically for the country.”
“Tom said that when people come into village court, they come in without a lawyer. They come in alone. They don’t know what to expect. It’s the closest interaction that they have, not only with the courts and the criminal justice system, but also with the government,” Cavallaro continued. “He’s always articulated that it’s his desire to treat everybody who comes before him, no matter what the charge is against him, no matter why they are in front of him, he treats them with the utmost respect and to try to mete out justice as fairly as possible. And I think that’s so important in our society today—we can see that’s not always the case. Even on things that seem trivial, like parking ticket, that they get a hearing and the judge takes the time to [review the case]. I read his biography. There’s so many things in there that speak to the kind of person that the judge is. The career that he’s had. The type of cases that he’s handled. He’d done a lot of things pro bono. He’s filed many briefs on important matters. Constitutional matters. With multiple courts. Even all the way up to the [state] Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state of New York. Those are things that not every lawyers does or wants to do. But Tom has spent his career doing that, because it’s important to him.”
The mayor concluded, “So we’re really lucky, honestly, that we’ve had someone of his caliber serving on our court for 30 years, and for 10 years before that he served as chairman of our youth commission, so that’s 40 years of service to our village.”
Cavallaro recalled when there was talk of setting up a casino near the village border. In 2014, the Nassau Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. wanted to purchase the shuttered Fortunoff’s at the Source Mall in Westbury and open a video lottery terminal (VLT) parlor with up to 1,000 slot machines. It was proposed to operate 20 hours per day, create 200 jobs and contribute tens of millions annually to the county.
Community opposition was fierce, and hundreds of people turned up at hearings and protests to push back against the plan. One newspaper account reported that Cavallaro was joined by then-County Executive Ed Mangano at a rally against the VLT parlor.
“We were forced into action. We were forced to defend ourselves,” the mayor related. “And Judge Liotti was one of the lawyers who acted on a pro-bono basis to bring a lawsuit to stop that action from taking place. Nobody thought there was any possibility that would be defeated. And we would be consigned to having that kind of use in our backyard. Tearing down our property values and creating other negative problems in our community. But Tom and the other lawyers who stepped up to the plate to defend the village and the residents of the village really deserve a tremendous amount of credit for doing that.”
We’re really very fortunate that we’ve had someone of his caliber serving on the bench here in our humble village court.
—Mayor Peter Cavallaro
Cavallaro also talked of the time that the Town of North Hempstead did not have councilmanic districts.
“I brought a lawsuit in a different capacity at the time to establish councilmatic districts and Tom served on the town commission after we won our lawsuit, that actually made the recommendations and election reforms that actually took place in the Town of North Hempstead.
“We’re really very fortunate that we’ve had someone of his caliber serving on the bench here in our humble village court,” he said.
The mayor invited the justice to come up and receive a commemorative glass plaque marking his 30 years as a judge.
“This is a token. It doesn’t have much material value. It really [expresses] a tremendous amount of gratitude on behalf of the village,” Cavallaro told Liotti and the assembled.
After accepting the award Liotti stated, “Martin said, no matter what our station in life is, we should try to be the best that we can be. That’s how I lived my life. According to that advisement by Dr. King. That’s how we built this model court and it has done amazing things and that’s how it’s been recognized as a model court throughout the state. I credit Martin Luther King with giving me the words of wisdom to build this model court, and I think the mayor has done the same thing with the Village of Westbury. So I thank him for his service and I thank him for this award.”
In a press release announcing his donation, Liotti said, “It has been my honor to serve this community and to have as my predecessor Justice John L. Molloy and to have as my mentor Associate Justice Frank Santagata. Both were leaders in the law. I have also had as my guardian angels my former clerks, Helen Averso and Rita Geraldi Yannacone and two of the country’s best mayors: Ernest Strada and Peter Cavallaro. While I cherish this award as my most valuable possession and the friendships of the people instrumental in my receipt of it including Mildred Little, Kenneth Little, Ruth Reese and others, they are all prized in my memory. So my family is pleased to give this award to the Village. It is something of which our entire community can be most proud.”