Reform of New York’s Small-Town Courts Stalls

The most ambitious efforts in decades to reform New York State’s vast network of small-town courts — where sessions can be held in a garage, and where more than 1,450 judges who are not lawyers conduct trials — have stalled in Albany. Even a seemingly modest compromise, one that would allow a defendant to request that the judge be a lawyer, seems doomed, its sponsor says.
Just a few years ago, critics of the courts said major changes seemed possible after nearly 100 years of failed efforts. The Legislature and a judicial commission held hearings, and state court officials instituted reforms.

But efforts toward more extensive changes have recently slowed to a crawl. The seemingly simple idea that the local justices should have law degrees went nowhere. Now, even a compromise legislative proposal that would give people facing jail the option of having their cases transferred to a judge who is a lawyer is failing in Albany.

The proposal has been angrily opposed by the justices, who, in addition to conducting trials, also rule on search warrants and send people to jail. But it has also been opposed, though more quietly, by the state’s top court administrators, who often walk a tightrope as they work to keep the courts running. A sponsor, Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat, said it was unlikely to pass this year. He said colleagues had told him that it threatened the stature of the justices, who are often tightly woven into local politics.

“They say, ‘I’m getting a whole lot of pressure about a bill you have,’ ” Mr. O’Donnell said. Critics of the courts say the bill’s failure would signal an end to the latest effort to change the courts.

“If this minimal legislative initiative can’t succeed, the possibility of strong, efficient, constitutionally protective local courts will never happen in this state in my lifetime,” said Eve Burton, a lawyer who was a member of a state commission that studied the town and village courts in 2007.

After a series of articles in The New York Times in 2006 showed extensive failings in the courts — including town and village justices who mishandled money, made racist remarks, released friends without bail, denied some defendants lawyers and jailed some of them without trials — state court officials appointed that commission, which concluded by proposing the measure that Mr. O’Donnell later introduced.

After the articles in The Times, the chief judge at the time, Judith S. Kaye, also made the most sweeping changes to the town and village courts in generations. She required, for the first time, that a word-for-word account be kept of proceedings; she instituted improved supervision of the justices, and increased classroom training for non-lawyer justices — who make up nearly three-quarters of the bench — to two weeks from one, with added studies at home.

The 1,250 town and village courts in the state, also known as justice courts, handle about two million cases annually, including traffic infractions, small civil cases, and misdemeanor trials that can lead to jail sentences of up to a year. They also set bail in cases as serious as manslaughter and rape, though felonies are afterward transferred to other courts for trial.

At the time of Judge Kaye’s plan for changes in 2006, critics said it was a Band-Aid approach that sidestepped the politically risky task of challenging the local justices.

Lawyers and state officials said in recent interviews that the changes have brought some improvements. But Robert H. Tembeckjian, the administrator of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, said the commission had continued to discipline or remove justices who jailed people without giving them access to lawyers, ruled on cases involving their own relatives and friends, and violated other basic rules. “For better or worse,” Mr. Tembeckjian said, “the system is roughly the same as it was three years ago.”

The town and village justices have reacted furiously to criticism, arguing that criticism of their courts was an attack on democracy. Their organization, the State Magistrates Association, has lobbied against Mr. O’Donnell’s bill, arguing that it was a costly proposal by downstate critics.

The association’s president, Edward G. Van Der Water, a justice in Van Buren near Syracuse, wrote to his members in the fall that the bill was a “clear and present danger.”

Justice Van Der Water, a former Syracuse deputy police chief who is not a lawyer, said in an interview that the measure “promises to wreak a lot of havoc on the system” for no reason.

“I am not aware of a whole lot of mistakes by non-lawyer judges,” he said.

State Senator John A. DeFrancisco, a Republican of Syracuse who is a defender of the justice court system, said the proposal was “a backhand way” of trying to abolish the courts, a step he said had little support. By failing to consider major changes in the town and village courts, he said, “the state has decided through the Legislature not to change the system.”

But some upstate critics of the courts have said that the changes put into effect by the state’s Office of Court Administration in 2006 have not given people facing jail the quality of justice they deserve.

“The system remains, the problems remain,” said Gary Pudup, a former sheriff’s deputy who is the chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union in Rochester.

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