Editor's Note: The Cortland Voice will be publishing interviews with political candidates vying for office ahead of the upcoming Sept. 12 primary.
Keith Dayton, who currently serves as the Chief Public Defender for Cortland County, is seeking to replace the Cortland County Judge seat left vacant by Judge William Ames, who is retiring. The Cortland Voice's Sara Sampson spoke with Dayton about his legal experience, his major influences in life, and how he would transition into the role of a judge.
What made you decide to transition from Chief Public Defender for Cortland County to Judge? How will you serve your community better as a judge?
Just like Judge Ames, who made the transition from public defender to county judge, I hope to do so as well. As the Chief Public Defender for 15 years, I have been in the unique position to understand, first-hand, the issues that Cortland County residents are facing. I have dedicated my 24-year legal career to representing people in our community in our family and criminal courts. I have always considered myself "the people's attorney" -- I hear people's life stories, their struggles, and how and why they find themselves in our court systems. Then, I implement plans to get them back on the right track. I know Cortland, I know the people of Cortland, and I care deeply about our community and our people. I want to take my knowledge of Cortland, the people, and our problems, and lead us toward proven solutions. I have worked my entire life to get to this exact point in my career where I am confident I will serve this community proudly and proficiently as our next County Judge. I have an in-depth knowledge of the law. I have spent my entire career practicing the law in the areas of law that I would preside over as County Judge. Finally, and most importantly, I have proven strategies to implement that will guide Cortland back in the right direction. The time is right for me to step up, to continue to serve my community in a different way, as our next Cortland County Judge.
What can you bring to this position? What experience do you have?
I bring something to this position that no other attorney in our community can - the experience, knowledge and skills obtained from handling more than 20,000 criminal and family court cases. During the course of my career, I have represented citizens of our community in almost every type of way. I have represented people who are accused of crimes, victims of domestic violence, individuals who experience substance abuse, who suffer from severe mental illness, mothers and fathers in custody actions or who are suspected of abuse or neglect of their children, the children themselves in Family Court, and Cortland's youth who may have gotten into trouble with the law. I have represented people of all walks of life. Each case is more than a case to me: it's a person, it's a family, it's a victim. I serve as the Vice Chair of Cortland County’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board. I am also an original member of Cortland’s Drug Treatment Court Team.
I vigorously teach, apply and defend the Constitution in every aspect of my legal practice. This includes fighting for our constitutional rights in the courtroom, traveling New York State to teach citizens on how to assert their rights, and teaching constitutional principles in my classes at SUNY Cortland.
I am Cortland's leading trial attorney. There is no attorney who has done as many trials as I have in Cortland County over the last 18 years. Trial experience is crucial for a judge to have because justice demands it. I have been in the trenches of trial work my entire career, and because of this experience I have a deeper understanding of the criminal procedure law, the NY Penal Law, the Family Court Act, the Rules of Evidence, and NY Civil Procedure. We need a Judge presiding over cases who is the most experienced and knowledgeable attorney in the courtroom. And if you don't, judicial errors will occur, justice will be denied, and victims will suffer.
Ultimately, if I am elected County Judge, I will ensure an efficient, fair and just County Court, Family Court and Surrogate’s Court system.
Why should voters care about judicial elections?
Everyday, numerous times throughout a day, the county judge makes decisions that affect people's lives. The county judge presides over our most serious criminal cases, thus having a direct impact on our community with regard to public safety, while also balancing people's civil liberties. The county judge also presides over all of Cortland County's matters of the family court, thus directly affecting people's home lives, their most intimate relationships, and the youth of Cortland County. Our County Judge plays a major role in the well-being of our community. The Judge is also, perhaps most importantly, the protector of our U.S. Constitution and New York State Constitution. If elected to be County Judge, I vow to uphold the Constitution in all aspects from the Bill of Rights, including, the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments.
What do you perceive as the greatest obstacles to justice, if any?
We need a judge who will take a stand and do what is right. We need a judge who will vigorously uphold and defend the Constitution. We need a judge who will efficiently achieve justice; after all, justice delayed is justice denied. We need someone who has significant experience in criminal court and family court in order to be able to process the cases efficiently, knowledgeably, and to ensure that justice is always achieved. I will be that judge for Cortland.
What are the major influences in your life? Why?
My wife and children are definitely the major influences in my life. My wife and I are expecting a baby boy this November, and I think of his future like I think of Cortland's future - I want the best future possible. I aspire to be the "Judge for Cortland’s Future", to do my part to make Cortland a better place for my family and your family. I want the best for them, and you: a safe community, a thriving community, a real future in Cortland. I want to protect Cortland's future and lead Cortland in the right direction so the community, including my family, will be proud to live and raise their families in Cortland.