September 25, 2006
"I just follow my own common sense. And the hell with the law."
 THOMAS R. BUCKLEY, a longtime justice in Dannemora, N.Y.
A yearlong investigation by The New York Times of the life and history
of New York State’s town and village courts found a long trail of
judicial abuses and errors — and of governmental failure to curb them.
Broken Bench  (part 1)
In Tiny Courts of New York, Abuses of Law and Power


Some of the courtrooms are not even courtrooms: tiny offices or basement rooms without a judge’s bench or jury box. Sometimes the public is not admitted, witnesses are not sworn to tell the truth, and there is no word-for-word record of the proceedings.

Nearly three-quarters of the judges are not lawyers, and many — truck drivers, sewer workers or laborers — have scant grasp of the most basic legal principles. Some never got through high school, and at least one went no further than grade school.

But serious things happen in these little rooms all over New York State. People have been sent to jail without a guilty plea or a trial, or tossed from their homes without a proper proceeding. In violation of the law, defendants have been refused lawyers, or sentenced to weeks in jail because they cannot pay a fine. Frightened women have been denied protection from abuse.

These are New York’s town and village courts, or justice courts, as the 1,250 of them are widely known. In the public imagination, they are quaint holdovers from a bygone era, handling nothing weightier than traffic tickets and small claims. They get a roll of the eyes from lawyers who amuse one another with tales of incompetent small-town justices.

A woman in Malone, N.Y., was not amused. A mother of four, she went to court in that North Country village seeking an order of protection against her husband, who the police said had choked her, kicked her in the stomach and threatened to kill her. The justice, Donald R. Roberts, a former state trooper with a high school diploma, not only refused, according to state officials, but later told the court clerk, “Every woman needs a good pounding every now and then.”

A black soldier charged in a bar fight near Fort Drum became alarmed when his accuser described him in court as “that colored man.” But the village justice, Charles A. Pennington, a boat hauler and a high school graduate, denied his objections and later convicted him. “You know,” the justice said, “I could understand if he would have called you a Negro, or he had called you a nigger.”

And several people in the small town of Dannemora were intimidated by their longtime justice, Thomas R. Buckley, a phone-company repairman who cursed at defendants and jailed them without bail or a trial, state disciplinary officials found. Feuding with a neighbor over her dog’s running loose, he threatened to jail her and ordered the dog killed.

“I just follow my own common sense,” Mr. Buckley, in an interview, said of his 13 years on the bench. “And the hell with the law.”

The New York Times spent a year examining the life and history of this largely hidden world, a constellation of 1,971 part-time justices, from the suburbs of New York City to the farm towns near Niagara Falls.

It is impossible to say just how many of those justices are ill-informed or abusive. Officially a part of the state court system, yet financed by the towns and villages, the justice courts are essentially unsupervised by either. State court officials know little about the justices, and cannot reliably say how many cases they handle or how many are appealed. Even the agency charged with disciplining them, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, is not equipped to fully police their vast numbers.

But The Times reviewed public documents dating back decades and, unannounced, visited courts in every part of the state. It examined records of closed disciplinary hearings. It tracked down defendants, and interviewed prosecutors and defense lawyers, plaintiffs and bystanders.

The examination found overwhelming evidence that decade after decade and up to this day, people have often been denied fundamental legal rights. Defendants have been jailed illegally. Others have been subjected to racial and sexual bigotry so explicit it seems to come from some other place and time. People have been denied the right to a trial, an impartial judge and the presumption of innocence.

In 2003 alone, justices disciplined by the state included one in Montgomery County who had closed his court to the public and let prosecutors run the proceedings during 20 years in office. Another, in Westchester County, had warned the police not to arrest his political cronies for drunken driving, and asked a Lebanese-American with a parking ticket if she was a terrorist. A third, in Delaware County, had been convicted of having sex with a mentally retarded woman in his care.

New York is one of about 30 states that still rely on these kinds of local judges, descendants of the justices who kept the peace in Colonial days, when lawyers were scarce. Many states, alarmed by mistakes and abuse, have moved in recent decades to rein in their authority or require more training. Some, from Delaware to California, have overhauled the courts, scrapped them entirely or required that local judges be lawyers.

But New York has no such requirement. It demands more schooling for licensed manicurists and hair stylists.

And it has left its justices with the same powers — more than in many states — even though governors, blue-ribbon commissions and others have been denouncing the courts as outdated and unjust since as far back as 1908, when a justice in Westchester County set up a roadside speed trap, fining drivers for whatever cash they were carrying.

Nearly a century later, a 76-year-old Elmira man who contested a speeding ticket in Newfield, outside Ithaca, was jailed without even a warning for three days in 2003 because he called the sheriff’s deputy a liar.

“I thought, this is not America,” said the man, Michael J. Pronti, who spent two years and $8,000 before a state appeals court ruled that he had been improperly jailed.

‘Justice in the Dark’

It is tempting to view the justice courts as weak and inconsequential because the bulk of their business is traffic violations. Yet among their 2.2 million cases, the courts handle more than 300,000 criminal matters a year. Justices can impose jail sentences of up to two years. Even in the smallest cases, some have wielded powers and punishments far beyond what the law allows.

The reason is plain: Many do not know or seem to care what the law is. Justices are not screened for competence, temperament or even reading ability. The only requirement is that they be elected. But voters often have little inkling of the justices’ power or their sometimes tainted records.

For the nearly 75 percent of justices who are not lawyers, the only initial training is six days of state-administered classes, followed by a true-or-false test so rudimentary that the official who runs it said only one candidate since 1999 had failed. A sample question for the justices: “Town and village justices must maintain dignity, order and decorum in their courtrooms” — true or false?

The result, records and interviews show, is a second-class system of justice.

The first class — the city, county and higher courts — is familiar to anyone who has served on a jury or watched “Law & Order”: hardly perfect, but a place of law-schooled judges, support staffs and strict rules. The lower and far larger rung of town and village courts relies on part-time justices, most of them poorly paid, some without a single clerk. Those justices — two-thirds of all the state’s judges — are not required to make transcripts or tape recordings of what goes on, so it is often difficult to appeal their decisions.

When they stray badly, the Commission on Judicial Conduct — a panel of lawyers, judges and others — can do little more than try to contain the damage.

Some 1,140 justices have received some sort of reprimand over the last three decades — an average of about 40 a year, either privately warned, publicly rebuked or removed. They are seriously disciplined at a steeper rate than their higher-court colleagues.

The Office of Court Administration, which runs the state court system, makes little pretense of knowing much about what happens in the justice courts. Beyond their names, ages and addresses, it has little information about the justices. Because they are paid by the towns and loosely tied into the court system, “we have limited administrative control, and very, very limited financial control,” said Jan H. Plumadore, the deputy chief administrative judge for all courts outside New York City.

The courts also handle money — more than $200 million a year in fines and fees. But the state comptroller’s office, which once conducted scores of justice-court audits every year, now does only a handful. When it looked most recently, auditing a dozen courts in May, it reported serious financial-management problems and estimated that millions of dollars a year might be missing from the justice courts statewide.

Norman P. Effman has been the public defender for 16 years in Wyoming County, where he said only one of the 37 justices was a lawyer. In testimony last year, he described the justice courts as a forgotten realm: a “closed door, back of someone’s house, in the barn, in the highway department, no record” justice system.

“The reality is,” he told a state commission, “if you keep justice in the dark, it stays in the dark.”

That commission, which was studying how the court system treats poor people, issued a study in June saying the justice courts remained “a fractured and flawed system.” And in recent days, the Office of Court Administration has said it plans to begin addressing some of those failings — for instance, taking steps to double the amount of initial training and to ensure that proceedings are recorded.

But those measures do not address some of the most serious problems: the use of justices who are not lawyers, and the state’s weak oversight.

This is not the first time the justice courts have come under scrutiny. “Probably the most unsatisfactory feature of the administration of criminal law remaining in the state today is the obsolete and antiquated institution known as the justice of the peace,” another state commission concluded.

The year was 1927.

A Record of Trouble

Certainly, there are worthy justices, and defenders of the system say the good far outnumber the bad. Those supporters, chiefly the justices themselves and the local political leaders who often select them, contend that hometown judges know the hometown problems — and the problem people — and can tailor common-sense solutions.

And, they have argued, putting lawyers in charge of all the courts could cost the state tens of millions of dollars.

“It is the most efficient, low-cost method of ensuring that the people of the state receive justice,” said Thomas R. Dias, a town justice in Columbia County who is president of the State Magistrates Association, the justices’ organization.

But the record shows otherwise in hundreds of disciplinary cases — most of them unknown to the public.

In the Catskills, Stanley Yusko routinely jailed people awaiting trial for longer than the law allows — in one case for 64 days because he thought the defendant had information about vandalism at the justice’s own home, said state officials, who removed him as Coxsackie village justice in 1995. Mr. Yusko was not even supposed to be a justice; he had actually failed the true-or-false test.

Outside Rochester, in Le Roy, a justice who is still in office concocted false statements, state officials said, to help immigration officials deport a Hispanic migrant worker in 2003. Although the man had pleaded not guilty to trespassing, the town justice, Charles E. Dusen, issued a court order saying he had been convicted. In an interview, Justice Dusen said he tried to right his wrong after the worker’s lawyer complained. But the man was still deported.

Last December, disciplinary officials disclosed that in a five-year period, a Rochester-area justice had mistakenly imposed $170,000 in traffic fines beyond what the law allowed. And in June, a justice in western New York was disciplined for threatening to jail a man — and warning him to “bring a couple thousand in bail money” — over a complaining phone message the man had left him.

Even the commuter towns around New York City, where the justices are typically lawyers, have endured the system’s abuses.

In Mount Kisco, people who asked for the court’s sympathy were treated to sarcasm: Justice Joseph J. Cerbone would pull out a nine-inch violin and threaten to play. Mr. Cerbone phoned one woman and talked her out of pressing abuse charges against the son of former clients, state records show. But it took eight years, and evidence that he had taken money from an escrow account, before the State Court of Appeals removed him in 2004 after a quarter-century in office.

In interviews, many of these justices disputed the findings against them, saying the Commission on Judicial Conduct was unfair and determined to end the justice courts.

Commission officials say they have no such agenda.

And the agency is struggling itself. Charged with policing all the state’s courts, it can do no more than respond to complaints. Its staff has shrunk by more than half in the last two decades, with just two investigators for the western half of the state.

So commission officials were surprised to learn last year that a western New York justice who had resigned while facing disciplinary charges was back on the bench.

The commission twice disciplined the town justice, Paul F. Bender of Marion, for deriding women in abuse cases. Arraigning one man on assault charges, he asked the police investigator whether the case was “just a Saturday night brawl where he smacks her and she wants him back in the morning.”

But the commission spared him removal in 1999 because he was not seeking re-election. Four years later Mr. Bender ran again anyway, unbeknownst to the commission, for a term that will not expire until 2007.

Robert H. Tembeckjian, the commission’s administrator, said, “Our working assumption is, a judge who resigns while under disciplinary charges by the commission is not going to return to the bench.” But he would not say whether his agency would — or could — take any action against Justice Bender.

‘I’m Not a Lawyer’

A 17-year-old girl had stayed out all night, then fought with her family and wound up facing a harassment charge in court in Alexandria Bay, a busy tourist village on the St. Lawrence River. The justice, Charles A. Pennington, a boat hauler with 23 years on the bench, took her not-guilty plea on a Sunday in 2003.

But when told that the girl had no place to go, the judge did not send her to a women’s shelter or alert social service officials, as local justices typically do. He took her home.

“I left the court kind of in shock,” a police officer later testified. “I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”

The girl’s mother, Keitha Rogers, said in an interview that she was appalled to find her daughter at the home of the justice, then 61, as he sat drinking with another man. “Sure, he can tell the difference between the stern and the bow,” Ms. Rogers said. “But what does that have to do with making major judgments about people’s lives?”

The judicial conduct commission, which ordered Justice Pennington’s removal last fall for this and other lapses, ruled that while there was no evidence he had made any improper advances toward the girl, who left after about an hour, he had shown “extraordinarily poor judgment.”

And while Mr. Pennington argued that he had not been drinking, he did not entirely disagree with the findings. “Granted, there is mistakes,” said the justice, who resigned before the commission ruled. “I’m not a lawyer.”

Neither are most of his peers. And that is pretty much all the state knows about them. Office of Court Administration officials say the only way they usually find out a new justice has been elected is if local officials notify them.

For decades, the agency has asked justices to fill out modest biographical questionnaires, then filed away the answers. Under freedom of information law, The Times obtained questionnaires completed by more than 1,800 current justices; they portray a group that is often poorly educated and poorly paid, even though the law they are dealing with is increasingly complex.

Of those who are not lawyers, about a third — more than 400 — had no formal education beyond high school. At least 40 did not complete high school, though several went on to earn equivalency degrees.

Interviews with more than 60 justices made it clearer who many of these people are: retirees, farmers, mechanics, former police officers and others with flexible schedules or seasonal work. Most look something like Mr. Pennington: white, and graying. At least 30 justices are in their 80’s, well beyond the mandatory retirement age, 70, for other New York judges.

Though the justices’ pay is often meager — as little as $850 a year — they can set bail, a basic legal safeguard. They hold crucial preliminary hearings in felony cases and conduct trials on misdemeanors. They preside over civil cases with claims of up to $3,000, and landlord-tenant disputes with no dollar limit, including commercial cases involving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And then there are the powers they simply take.

In what the Commission on Judicial Conduct called “a shocking abuse of judicial power,” Justice Roger C. Maclaughlin single-handedly went after a man he decided was violating local codes on the keeping of livestock in Steuben, near Utica. The justice interviewed witnesses, tipped off the code-enforcement officer, lobbied the town board to deny the man approval to run a trailer park, then jailed him for 10 days without bail — or even a chance to defend himself, the commission said.

In an interview, Justice Maclaughlin said the commission seemed to be chasing legal technicalities rather than real justice.

An Essex County town justice, Richard H. Rock, jailed two 16-year-olds overnight without a trial, saying he wanted “to teach them a lesson.” They had been accused of spitting at two other people and charged with harassment. Then he sent them back for 10 more days, the commission said, without ever advising them they had a right to a lawyer.

In 2001, the commission punished him and Justice Maclaughlin with censure, the most serious penalty short of removal from the bench. Justice Maclaughlin is now in his 11th year in office. Justice Rock is in his 10th.

In Alexandria Bay, where Justice Pennington presided at a metal desk in a tiny room inside the police building, a quarter-century in office did not seem to deepen his understanding of his role. Just three days after he took home the 17-year-old girl, another case raised fresh questions about his familiarity with the law, or even the world outside his court.

Eeric D. Bailey, a 21-year-old black soldier from nearby Fort Drum, was facing a disorderly conduct charge after a tussle with a white bar bouncer. Sitting three feet from Mr. Bailey, the bouncer identified him as “that colored man.” Mr. Bailey’s jaw dropped.

The soldier, who did not have a lawyer, told the judge that the term was offensive. But Justice Pennington said that while certain other words were racist, “colored” was not. “For years we had no colored people here,” he said.

The commission had heard worse. After arraigning three black defendants arrested in a college disturbance in 1994, a justice in the Finger Lakes region said in court, “Oh, it’s been a rough day — all those blacks in here.” A few years before that, a Catskill justice reminisced in court that it was safe for young women to walk around “before the blacks and Puerto Ricans moved here.”

In an interview, Justice Pennington said the commission had treated him unfairly. But he may not have helped his case when he told the commission that “colored” was an acceptable description.

“I mean, to me,” he testified, “colored doesn’t preferably mean black. It could be an Indian, who’s red. It could be Chinese, who’s considered yellow.”

Basic Training

As the blunders, and worse, have piled up over the years, so have the muffled complaints from within the system. Transcripts of the commission’s disciplinary hearings, which are usually closed to the public, show that some justices have nearly begged for more training, or any kind of help.

Anthony Ellis, a meat cutter who routinely jailed defendants in Tupper Lake to coerce them into pleading guilty, neatly summed up his insecurities in one closed hearing: “I’m almost like a pilot flying by the seat of my pants.”

William G. Mayville, a retired factory worker who turned his courtroom in nearby Fort Covington into a collection agency for local business owners, offered a quietly damning explanation: “I certainly am only a simple man doing a job that, you know, the very best I can do with a limited amount of education that they offered me.”

Simple men, and their simple wisdom, are the whole idea behind the justice courts. A 13th-century English institution, the justice of the peace was imported to the colonies in the 1600’s along with a fundamental notion: that laymen could settle small-bore cases with practical solutions grounded in local custom or common sense.

But as life, and the law, became vastly more complex by the mid-20th century, several states, including California, New Jersey and Connecticut, created more professional local courts.

In Delaware, where the appointed local magistrates have less authority than New York’s justices, the state screens candidates with academic and psychological tests, and starts them off with 11 weeks of training. “It is a reflection of the view that when we’re dealing with people’s livelihood, when we’re dealing with people’s freedom, we’re going to take this seriously,” said the chief magistrate, Alan G. Davis, a lawyer.

In New York, the justice courts have been replaced by state-financed district courts, with lawyer judges, in Nassau County and western Suffolk County. But the last major calls for statewide reform sputtered out in the early 1980’s, and the amount of training for justices has not changed. Those without law degrees must take six days of classes at the start. Lawyers do not have to attend, but all justices must take a 12-hour refresher course once a year.

Maryrita Dobiel, who runs the training program for the Office of Court Administration, said the classes provide an introduction to legal principles, but not much more, given a student body with such varying levels of education. “We have to teach to the lowest common denominator,” she said. General principles of criminal law, a subject that takes up a semester or more in law school, gets about five hours.

At training’s end, justices must score at least 70 percent on a test of 50 questions, all true or false. Those who fail can retake the course, and the test. “We don’t decide whether they’re qualified to be a judge,” Ms. Dobiel said. “The people who have elected them have already made that decision.”

The real test comes on the bench.

Several justices have threatened to arrest litigants in small-claims cases, showing they do not understand the difference between civil and criminal cases. Others have told the judicial conduct commission that they disagreed with the constitutional guarantee that a defendant is entitled to a lawyer.

John D. Cox, a quarry manager in Le Ray, near Watertown, summarily jailed people who were unable to pay fines, the commission said. But he received the lightest public penalty, an admonition, in 2002 after he explained that in 22 years in office, he had never been taught that state law allows defendants a new hearing and a lawyer when they say they cannot pay their fine.

The justices do have something of a lifeline: They can call a resource center near Albany where four lawyers field more than 18,000 questions a year. But there are limits on what the center tries to do.

“We tell them what their options are,” said the center’s supervisor, Paul Toomey. “We don’t tell them they’re wrong.”

Power and Prejudice

Few people who came to his court ever told Donald R. Roberts he was wrong. A strapping former state trooper, he was working as a gas-company truck driver when he was appointed village justice in Malone, near the Canadian border, in 1993. When he was removed five years later, the Commission on Judicial Conduct dispatched him with a stinging description: “a biased, mean-spirited, bullying judge.”

It was Justice Roberts who declared that women needed “a good pounding.” He had already battled with the county district attorney over his resistance to granting orders of protection.

When a village resident asked that the dentist suing him be forced to come to court to prove his case, Justice Roberts told the man, who had a Hispanic surname: “You’re not from around here, and that’s not the way we do things around here.” The justice did not mention that the plaintiff was his own dentist.

A common argument in favor of New York’s justice courts is that local judges know the people and problems that come before them. But that can be a problem itself when justices use those prejudices to favor friends and ride herd over others.

“They have their own little fiefdoms,” said Laurie Shanks, an Albany Law School professor. “Some are benevolent despots, but despots nonetheless.”

Again and again, the commission’s records show, justices have failed to remove themselves from cases involving their own families.

In this department, Pamela L. Kadur may hold a record. As town justice in Root, west of Schenectady, she presided over at least seven cases involving relatives, who often received lenient treatment, the commission said when it ordered her removal in 2003. Justice Kadur heard a speeding case against her son in her own kitchen, then tried to cover up their family relationship in record books, the commission said, by misspelling his last name.

One longtime town justice near Albany let a friend who owned a driving school sit with him at the bench; when the justice ordered anyone to take a driver-training course, only the friend’s school was acceptable. Another justice, in Rensselaer County, told a trucker charged with drunken driving that he would not suspend his license because “I can’t do that to a fellow truck driver.”

Historically, large numbers of the justices have been former law enforcement officers, and lawyers complain that many have unfairly favored the police and prosecutors.

Some justices, unsure of the law, have also come to rely too much on the authorities. Elaine M. Rider, who presided in Waterville, near Utica, fretted that she did not “really have the time to puzzle this out” when a criminal defendant argued that evidence had been seized illegally. So she had the prosecutor write her decision, the commission said.

But one of the most common prejudices on view in the commission’s files is far more basic, and it can be found as often in the big-city suburbs that have official-looking courthouses and lawyers on the bench.

In 20 years in office in Haverstraw, north of New York City in Rockland County, Justice Ralph T. Romano drew attention for his opinions on women, state files show. Arraigning a man in 1997 on charges that he had hit his wife in the face with a telephone, he laughed and asked, “What was wrong with this?” Arraigning a woman on charges that she had sexually abused a 12-year-old boy, the justice asked his courtroom, “Where were girls like this when I was 12?”

Across the Hudson, Joseph Cerbone, the Mount Kisco justice with the miniature violin, persuaded a young woman to drop her abuse case against the son of a couple he had done legal work for. She told the commission that while she did not believe the justice’s claim that the son was “a decent guy” who had “made a mistake,” she had no choice.

“I kind of felt I had no one behind me, no support,” she said. “And by getting a phone call from a judge, I felt that maybe I was making a mistake by going through with these charges.”

But the human damage can be much worse in the small communities where the justice is often the most powerful local official.

In 11 years as justice in Dannemora, in the North Country, Thomas R. Buckley had his own special treatment for defendants without much money: Even if they were found not guilty, he ordered them to perform community service work to pay for their court-appointed lawyers, although defense lawyers and the district attorney had reminded him for years that the law guaranteed a lawyer at no cost.

“The only unconstitutional part,” he told the commission before it removed him in 2000, “is for these freeloaders to expect a free ride.”

He twice jailed David Velie, a 19-year-old charged with a misdemeanor, even though the law required him to set bail. In an interview, Mr. Buckley explained that the young man had been a troublemaker “ever since he was born.”

Like many small-town justices, he said many of his decisions were down-to-earth solutions. “You’ve got to use your own judgment,” he said. “That’s why they call us judges. The law is not always right.”

Some residents say that without the law to protect them, they lived in fear. Debra E. Bordeau, the justice’s neighbor, said she went into hiding after he threatened to jail her in a dispute over her dog, which he ordered destroyed.

And Carson F. Arnold Sr., a contractor from a nearby town, was jailed for five days after a woman who knew Justice Buckley complained that Mr. Arnold had threatened her, the commission said. There was no trial. The justice simply told Mr. Arnold to shut up, then sentenced him without bail.

“How many years did he treat people like this?” Mr. Arnold asked in an interview. “How many people did this affect?”

A Culture of Secrets

The feeling of powerlessness often begins at the courthouse door.

Many justices preside in intimidatingly tight quarters, admitting participants one by one. Many have heard testimony, settled claims or ruled in criminal cases without notifying the prosecutor, lawyers or even the people directly involved. Some justices can be very selective, state records show: At a 1999 criminal trial in Kinderhook, south of Albany, Justice Edward J. Williams admitted everyone but the victim’s lawyer.

Court sessions may be just as unpredictable — held infrequently or at odd hours, or canceled without notice. In 2004, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund found that people awaiting trial in Schuyler County in the Finger Lakes were jailed for months simply waiting for court to convene again. A high school student arrested on a minor drug charge in the summer of 2003, it said, was still sitting in jail in October.

But the biggest obstacle of all is pinning down what happens in the courtrooms.

A Rochester poverty lawyer, Laurie Lambrix, said that when she appealed the case of a mother of six — a black woman evicted in 1999 by a white landlord who she said had made racist comments — a justice in nearby Gates told her she could not examine the court file of her own client. “I knew court records were public records,” Ms. Lambrix said. “I couldn’t believe a judge would be ignorant of that.”

She was lucky; at least there were records, which she eventually obtained. In many justice courts, it is next to impossible to reconstruct what happened. Some towns spring for a stenographer or taping system, and some justices try to scrawl notes while they preside. But in some cases, there are not even notes.

When someone does appeal, the law requires that justices write a summary of the case. Justices said in interviews that their decisions were rarely appealed, anyway, and even more rarely overturned.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct, then, remains the last line of oversight for justices, and only for those who have stirred up enough concern to be reported by a prosecutor, lawyer or citizen. But the panel is stretched thin — “persistently and acutely underfunded,” as it lamented in one annual report. Its statewide staff, which numbered 63 in 1978 when it began, is down to 29.

Supporters of the justice courts have long maintained that they are no worse than the higher courts, citing commission statistics that show justices are disciplined at about the same rate as their higher-court colleagues. But responding to questions from The Times, commission officials studied the agency’s three-decade record and found — to their surprise — that cases against local justices were more likely to result in serious punishments.

Although the justices make up about 66 percent of all New York judges, they constitute 76 percent of the 147 judges who have been removed from office.

Last year, six justices were publicly disciplined for the second time, more repeat offenders than ever. But Mr. Tembeckjian, the commission administrator, said the agency had no way to keep a closer eye on them.

“It would be in the public interest for the commission to make sure that a judge who was identified as having a problem has corrected it,” he said. “But we simply don’t have the resources to do it.”

Lawrence S. Goldman, the commission’s chairman until April, said all justices should be lawyers. His successor, the divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, would not discuss the quality of the justice courts, but predicted that a reckoning was at hand.

“This is something that’s going to have to be addressed by the next governor,” he said. “There is a controversy here, and this issue has not been addressed for many, many years.”

Jo Craven McGinty contributed reporting.

September 26, 2006

Broken Bench (part 2)
Small-Town Justice, With Trial and Error


DUANE, N.Y. — Gary Betters thought he understood the law as well as any average American. A school psychologist, he wanted $1,588.60 he said the nearby village of Malone owed him for helping run a summer recreation program. When he brought a small claim in Duane Town Court, he expected that the judge would listen to both sides, then rule.

Like many others who go to court across New York State, he got a crash course in the strange ways of small-town justice.

Although no one showed up to defend the village, Justice William J. Gori started the trial anyway. Although the judge had Mr. Betters testify at length, he neglected to have him swear to tell the truth. And although Justice Gori told Mr. Betters he had another week to submit more evidence, the judge went ahead and decided the case anyway.

Mr. Betters received the news in a letter from the court: his case had been dismissed. No reason was given. “I cannot understand how a defendant can win when they don’t even show up,” he said in an interview.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct figured out how. Justice Gori, it seems, had gone to the village offices in Malone before the trial, interviewed the village’s chief witness, then informed the village lawyer that he had decided to throw out the case.

Justice Gori told the commission that he had never heard of the elementary legal rule that bars a judge, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, from secret contact with one side of a case. “It’s not even explained in my manual,” he said.

An unfamiliarity with basic legal principles is remarkably common in what are known as the justice courts, legacies of the Colonial era that survive in more than 1,000 New York towns and villages.

For generations, justices have hailed them as “poor man’s courts,” where ordinary people can get simple justice with little formality or expense. But there are few more vivid spots to view their shortcomings than here in one of New York’s poorest corners: Franklin County, a place of rugged beauty on the Canadian border where only one of the 32 local justices is a lawyer.

The county’s justices have repeatedly drawn the attention of state judicial conduct officials, with 15 publicly disciplined since the late 1970’s, some twice. Justice Gori’s errors pale in comparison with those of some others: One justice freed a rape suspect on bail as a favor to a friend. Another sentenced a welfare recipient to 89 days in jail after she failed to pay a $1.50 cab fare. Franklin County justices have presided drunk, fixed cases and denied lawyers to defendants. One failed to appoint a lawyer for a 19-year-old mentally retarded alcoholic.

Here in Duane, a speck of a town in the center of the county, Justice Gori is in many ways a typical small-town New York justice.

A bricklayer and a former dog trainer with a high school education, he is an approachable man of 59, in jeans hitched up with suspenders. On Thursday nights he ambles down to the volunteer firehouse to hold court, such as it is. His grasp of the law is somewhat shaky. His temper sometimes gets the better of him.

He has no judge’s bench, few law books and no court clerk. He is something of an accidental judge, occupying the position for nearly a decade largely because no one else wants it, people here say. Although state officials have reprimanded him twice for fundamental lapses in the conduct of his job, few Duane voters seemed to know or care. “Nobody’s ever asked a question about it,” Justice Gori said.

He seems well-intentioned enough. Like many justices, he describes his job as public service, and he says he studies the law for several hours every week.

But there is evidence that that may not be enough. When the judicial conduct commission called Justice Gori to account for his handling of Mr. Betters’s case, his defense was startling, a transcript of the hearing shows. His own lawyer blamed the state for running the justice courts as it does: Judges, he said, with so little training — six days of classes, and a 12-hour refresher course once a year — could not possibly know the basic rules for handling a lawsuit.

The county’s district attorney, Derek P. Champagne, says that when he took office five years ago, he had to drop hundreds of criminal cases because justices had failed to take any action for so long. Mr. Champagne says his staff of four full-time prosecutors is too small even to regularly visit the justice courts, which are separated by great distances.

Franklin County is bigger than Rhode Island. But it has only one higher court judge, in the county court in Malone. So the part-time town and village justices — plumbers, meat cutters and school bus drivers — are often the last word on the law here, with the power to issue search warrants, conduct trials, put some people in jail and let friends go free.

“The reality is, you basically have to have no qualifications other than be a voter to put someone in jail, and that’s a very alarming situation,” Mr. Champagne said. “To throw a layperson — some of whom don’t have a high school degree — in that position is just a recipe for disaster.”

A Night in Court

“Town of Duane Justice Court is now in session,” Justice Gori announced.

Four bare fluorescent bulbs provided the only light in the roughly finished meeting room that becomes a court every few weeks. There was a portable bar against one wall, and a glimpse of the firehouse kitchen, with its jumble of old soda bottles and coffeepots. The American flag tacked to the wall had to be pulled back to allow the judge to get at the thermostat on this icy winter night.

At two pushed-together folding tables sat a nervous teenager, in court to answer speeding tickets, next to his clench-jawed father. A state trooper, there as chief witness against the teenager, doubled as the court security officer.

And behind a battered wooden desk was Justice Gori. Fleshy, with eyes that water at sentimental moments, he was wearing an open brown shirt, his T-shirt visible at the neck.

The court computer that he bought with his own money was at home; it took him two months to figure out how to turn the thing on, he said. He had no judge’s robe. They are too expensive, he said. His judicial salary is $3,750 a year.

“There are certain things that are lacking,” he said.

He moved to Duane, population 159, from Saratoga County in his 40’s after a divorce, enticed by the chance to hunt with his dogs.

“Maybe it’s the solitude,” said Justice Gori, who has since remarried. “You get up here at night, when the highway quiets down, you don’t hear anything.”

Yet people cross paths in Franklin County in unlikely and sometimes volatile ways: Mohawk Indians, the owners of lavish new vacation homes, Adirondack tourists and fishermen, and others who cross the border on less savory business. Drugs and domestic violence seem to be on the rise, and state prisons are big employers.

When Justice Gori moved here about 20 years ago, the prison construction boom offered jobs. After years as a dog trainer, “I picked up my tools and went back to the bricklaying, mason trade,” he said.

Like a lot of newcomers to small towns, he wanted to get involved. But he didn’t like the sight of blood, so that ruled out volunteer firefighting. He was attracted instead to the court in the weathered firehouse. “Law has always been kind of an interesting thing to me,” he said.

That interest, however, does not include a fascination with the technicalities that occupy lawyers. “If you look at the laws, it’s all common sense,” he said.

Most of his work, since his first election in 1997, has been traffic cases. If there were many serious crimes in Duane, he said, they may have gone unnoticed out in the vast Adirondack nights. “Either we’re a nice, quiet town or two people duked it out and one won and one lost, they got up and shook hands and nobody knows about it,” he said.

There have been a handful of serious cases, the first phases of some felony prosecutions. Once, state troopers tracked him down on a bricklaying job. They said a local man was growing marijuana, and wanted a warrant to search his property. In the dust and cement, it fell to William Gori, dog trainer and mason, to put aside his tools and measure the rights guaranteed under the Constitution. “I sat down,” he said. “Read everything. Looked at all the pictures.” The troopers got their warrant.

In the makeshift courtroom on this winter night, he was warmly sympathetic to a woman who had forgotten to put the registration sticker on her windshield. Case dismissed.

But the teenager with the speeding tickets saw the stern Justice Gori. The boy had tickets in a half-dozen Franklin County towns, and his lawyer proposed combining the cases in another court.

No way. “What happens in the town of Duane,” Justice Gori declared, “stays in the town of Duane.”

That is not always true. The other case that drew the attention of the Commission on Judicial Conduct involved Lucille K. Millett, a Mohawk woman from the reservation that straddles the county’s border with Canada. She was outside the Duane court one night in 2004 waiting for her sister, whom she had driven there for a traffic case. Justice Gori summoned Ms. Millett inside, asked for her driver’s license and called the state police to run it through their computer.

In an interview, Ms. Millett said she was frightened and embarrassed; no one else was asked for a license. The only sense the sisters could make of it, she said, was that they were the only American Indians in court.

She filed a complaint with the commission, which ruled last year that Justice Gori had no right to demand anything of someone outside his court who faced no charges.

Asked about the case, Justice Gori denied that he harbored any prejudice. He said he thought he was acting within his authority.

“You learn by mistakes,” he said. “They say this is improper, I don’t do it again.”

It is a measure of his isolation that his disciplinary hearings have been among the few times he has had a chance to rub shoulders with the larger legal world. He attends the refresher course each year. But he said the town could not afford to send him to the annual state magistrates’ convention, held last year in Niagara Falls, nor could he pay for the trip himself.

Still, he is convinced that he and the other justices across New York are honest people trying to do right. “Economicswise,” he added, “you couldn’t get the job done any cheaper.”

A County at the Edges

The troubles of Mr. Gori and his fellow justices are nothing new. In 1973, the State Commission of Investigation arrived in the Franklin County village of Saranac Lake to examine the work of one justice, a maintenance worker and vacuum-cleaner salesman, whose “inept and mangled handling,” it said, had bungled a felony grand larceny case.

What investigators found alarmed them. Money was missing. Records were sloppy. A pile of cash from fines sat in an unlocked drawer. The justice’s relationship with the police seemed far too close, and one of his law books was 44 years old.

Astonished, the investigators widened their inquiry to include all the justice courts in the county and then expanded it across New York. Calling for statewide reform, they concluded that “such deficiencies and ineptitude” in the justice courts “simply must not be tolerated.”

But little seems to have changed in Franklin County’s justice courts since then.

Last November, one longtime village justice, Roy H. Kristoffersen, a salesman, resigned after officials began investigating charges, which he denied, that he “rendered favorable dispositions” for the son of the other village justice — in Saranac Lake, the same place that touched off the investigation 33 years ago.

Another justice, Marie A. Cook, a school-bus driver who is still on the town bench in Chateaugay, not only fixed a speeding ticket at the request of a fellow justice, but she was so oblivious to ethical rules, the commission said last fall, that she made an official record of the fix: “Reduced in the interest of Justice Danny LaClair.”

Yet another, the town justice who released a rape suspect on bail as a favor to a friend, tried to explain things to the commission: “Maybe you are not familiar with what goes on in the North Country, but we are all more or less friends up there.”

Such cases may only hint at the dimensions of the problem in Franklin’s courts. A review for this article of rarely seen appeals files in Franklin County Court showed a disturbing trail of legal blunders and judicial ignorance over the last five years.

One justice seemed not to fully understand that criminal charges must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, wrote the county court judge, Robert G. Main Jr. Another justice skipped over the matter of the constitutional guarantee of a lawyer. Immediately after a woman charged with fraud said she could not afford an attorney, Judge Main said, the village justice took her guilty plea instead of appointing a lawyer.

Such problems are hardly news to many lawyers who make the rounds of Franklin County’s justice courts. Some say they avoid the courts because the justices often have trouble following their arguments.

In a place as poor and remote as Franklin County, the failings of modest courts can loom large. Cases too minor to draw much interest from the rest of the legal system — evictions, misdemeanor charges, disputes between neighbors, driving infractions and applications for bail — come with real consequences for small-town residents who may have little money or access to a lawyer.

Alexander Lesyk, the Franklin County public defender for 15 years until a few months ago, said that while he had some successes for poor clients before local justices, “I don’t believe any of them has enough training to handle a trial, to handle constitutional issues, to stand up to and control an attorney on either side when they need to.”

But challenging a justice can be bad for business, some lawyers said.

The district attorney, Mr. Champagne, said that when his office hears about justices who stray from the law, it has to be careful. “We’re not going to get into a confrontation with a judge we may have to go in front of next week on a very serious preliminary hearing in a murder case,” he said.

A Case of Confusion

When Gary Betters got the letter from Justice Gori in March 1999 saying that his claim for back pay had been dismissed, he was very confused. The message was a single paragraph, and garbled at that. Even the date on it was wrong.

But that was only the start of his troubles.

He wrote to Justice Gori, asking for a mistrial. The justice never replied.

Mr. Betters decided to appeal in county court. But he could not persuade any lawyer to take the case; several, he said, told him it would not be in their interest to take on a town justice.

On his own, Mr. Betters filed a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct, and the truth emerged: The commission’s investigators discovered that Justice Gori had gone to the Malone village offices before the trial and interviewed the defense’s chief witness, the village treasurer, who told him that Mr. Betters was owed nothing.

Justice Gori told the village attorney that he need not show up for the trial because he had already decided to dismiss the case. The attorney was amazed. “A lot of bells and whistles went off,” he told the commission.

But when Justice Gori explained himself to the commission in a closed hearing, he said he had never heard of the rule against contacting one side of a case to discuss the evidence. Further, the commission’s lawyer argued, a legal motion filed by the village had completely bewildered Justice Gori, even after he made several calls to the state’s help line for town justices.

“The whole concept I didn’t understand,” Justice Gori testified.

It was a damaging admission, but nothing compared with the case made by his own lawyer, John A. Piasecki. He said his client’s error-riddled handling of Mr. Betters’s suit was an indictment of the system, which put laymen on the bench, gave them little training and left them to interpret the law.

Mr. Piasecki asked whether the state had ever checked Justice Gori’s reading comprehension. (It had not.) He even tried to cross-examine the Malone village attorney to show what he argued was the obvious difference between Justice Gori and someone who actually understood the law.

Mr. Piasecki, a Franklin County lawyer himself, urged a “long-overdue correction” for the justice court system, which he said “undermines confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”

The commission was not moved. Justice Gori, it said, had a duty to learn the law. “Town justices wield enormous power in civil and criminal cases,” the commission said, “and it is not unreasonable to expect them to know and follow basic statutory procedures.”

Yet Justice Gori received the lightest public penalty the commission can issue, an admonition.

As for Mr. Betters, he never found a lawyer to take his appeal. Today, he still feels that his education in Franklin County law cost him a lot more than $1,588.60.

“It broke down my belief in the justice system,” he said.

Business as Usual

The judicial career of William Gori began humbly enough.

“Nobody was jumping out of the woodwork wanting this job,” said Justice Gori, who raised his hand for the position in 1997 after the sitting justice announced his retirement.

With no opposition, he won the endorsement of the Republicans and then the Democrats in Duane. The Republican chairwoman, Pamela M. LeMieux, said he impressed party leaders as responsible and “very strict.”

In the general election, his only opponent was Gary Anderson, a former accountant who ran as the candidate of what he named the Pine Tree Party. “Nobody wants the job,” Mr. Anderson said.

Even the campaign was not especially interesting, Justice Gori recalled. “All I said was: ‘I’m Bill Gori. I’m running for town justice and I’m only interested in doing a good job for the town.’ ” He won, 64 to 39.

If the process was not a model of meticulous judicial selection, that fact may carry an extra punch in Duane. The town, as it happens, was named for its founders, descendants of the first federal judge in New York.

When President George Washington selected the judge, James Duane, a prominent lawyer, for the post in 1789, he used the nomination to lay out his aspirations for selecting judges in a democracy. The choice of who would sit on a nation’s courts was a matter of “the first magnitude,” Washington wrote, and the judiciary was “the pillar on which our political fabric must rest.”

Today, that fabric is a little frayed in Franklin County.

Thomas Catillaz, a former mayor of Saranac Lake, said that when political parties there find a nominee, “It’s usually, ‘Thank God somebody’s running,’ ” he said. “And if you’re in there, you’re in there for 20 years.”

When justices are publicly disciplined, that is often the end of the matter. As Justice Gori recalls it, when he received his second admonition last year, the local newspaper in Malone “put it way in the back.”

He faced an election after each ruling, but no opponent. Gary Cring, a retired schoolteacher who has lived in Duane for six years, said he had not heard that Justice Gori had been disciplined. Had that been better known, he said, voters might have been less enthusiastic about re-electing him. “People figure he must be doing a good job,” Mr. Cring said.

But Mrs. LeMieux, the Republican chairwoman, said it was not the town’s job to police its justice. “If he did something that was that serious, I figure the court system wouldn’t have allowed him to remain a justice,” she said. “If they didn’t throw him out, then who are we to judge?”

And so Justice Gori is working his way through a third four-year term, learning the job as he goes. He does not appear to share his lawyer’s disdain for how the justice courts are run.

“I really feel the justice courts are the courts closest to the people,” he said, and being a lawyer might interfere with that. “At times, lawyers get hung up in certain things, so that maybe you wouldn’t get true justice in certain cases.”

But a state police report from last year suggested that in Duane, true justice — and empathy for the people — might be works in progress.

It seems that Brandon L. Lucas, a scrawny 19-year-old from the next county, was trying to pay a ticket he had received in Duane for fishing with the wrong kind of bait. Since the firehouse court was empty, as it often is, Mr. Lucas went down the road to Justice Gori’s house.

Soon, Mr. Lucas was in the back of a state trooper’s car in handcuffs, and in tears. An angry Justice Gori had berated him and called the police, the young man recalled when a reporter tracked him down. He had evidently not seen the sign on the judge’s garage: “If you proceed past this point, you are subject to various trespass rules and regulations.”

The district attorney decided not to prosecute. And Mr. Lucas made his own decision about wandering into the jurisdiction of Duane Town Court: Don’t.

“I’ll never go fishing up there again,” he said.

September 27, 2006

Broken Bench (part 3)
How a Reviled Court System Has Outlasted Critics


“A farce in these days,” Gov. Alfred E. Smith pronounced New York State’s town and village courts in 1926.

“An outworn system,” said his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, not long after a state commission called it “a feeble office respected by no one.” A few years after that, another commission said the local court system had “lost all contact with reality.”

In all, at least nine commissions, conferences or other state bodies — including representatives of both major political parties and all three branches of government — have denounced the local courts over the last century, joined by at least two governors and several senior judges.

Their language has often been blistering, and their point has been the same: These courts, with their often primitive trappings and amateur judges, are an anachronism that desperately needs to be overhauled or discarded.

Although they are key institutions of justice in more than 1,000 small towns and suburbs across New York, trying misdemeanor cases and lawsuits, a vast majority of the justices who run them are not lawyers, and receive only a few days’ legal training. The justices are often elected in low-turnout races, keep few records and operate largely without supervision — leaving a long trail of injustices and mangled rulings.

Yet these justice courts, as they are known, remain essentially as they were when New Yorkers started complaining nearly a century ago. In recent weeks, state officials have decided to take some steps to increase training, supervision and record-keeping. But the cries for any sweeping change have all but died out over the last few decades, even as the abuses have continued.

One way to understand why a much-criticized institution has come to seem so entrenched is to revisit three big battles over the justice courts. In each, the people seeking to change the system tried in a different arena: the Legislature, the voting booths and the higher courts. And each time, their defeat was so stinging that it effectively killed any further discussion there:

¶In 1962, state leaders accomplished something they had been trying to do for more than a century, revamping a state court system that was badly out of date. But in several back-room political maneuvers, they left the justice courts untouched, passed the task of altering the system to local governments, and added a maze of procedural barriers that made any major change difficult.

¶In 1967, local activists took up the cause in Rockland County, one of the few counties where a push to replace the justice courts made some headway; a referendum was held on the issue. But a fiercely emotional campaign vanquished the proposal, and helped create a sense in other counties that fighting the system was futile.

¶And in 1983, a challenge to the system’s constitutionality reached the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. Attorneys for an upstate teenager facing a jail sentence argued that the right to a lawyer, guaranteed by the Constitution, was meaningless if the judge lacked the training to understand the lawyer’s arguments.

That appeal failed by a single vote. New Yorkers, the majority on the seven-member court decreed, do not have to be tried by a judge schooled in the law — a ruling that has stood ever since.

In interviews, people who were deeply involved in these episodes — including political deal-making that took place out of public view and was never reported — pointed to a battery of forces that have doomed change: The powerful idea that communities should choose their own destinies, including their own judges. The considerable costs of updating courtrooms and hiring lawyers to preside. The always-popular calls to keep lawyers out of people’s lives. And, not least, the power of the justices, who are often important players in local politics, wired into the same party mechanisms that produce the state’s lawmakers, judges and governors.

Dale C. Robbins, a former Republican supervisor of Busti, a small town in western New York, said he and others who tried to replace the justice courts in the 1990’s ran into a buzz saw of resistance from local justices fighting for their jobs, and something of a populist uprising fueled by suspicion of the lawyers who would be judges in any new system.

He said the defeat was typical of the gridlock on many big issues in New York. “Nothing gets done,” he said. “Who wants to face this battle when there are so many other battles you have to fight?”

A Moment in Albany

It was January 1959. The new governor and political star, Nelson A. Rockefeller, was making his first address to the Legislature in Albany. “The highest priority” of his administration, he promised, would be modernizing the state court system.

Court reform, he knew, was a popular issue he could ride, yellowing papers in the Rockefeller archive show. People across the state were sick of the slow, confusingly organized system and the patronage appointees — many of them unqualified, unresponsive or corrupt — who filled it from top to bottom. Complaints that had been pouring in for decades had reached critical mass in recent years, as the latest state panel to tackle court reform, known as the Tweed Commission, drew up detailed proposals for change.

Soon after his speech to lawmakers, Governor Rockefeller appointed his young counsel, Robert MacCrate, to draw up amendments to the State Constitution that would be needed to reorganize the courts, and then to marshal support in the Legislature.

But Mr. MacCrate quickly learned that the lowliest part of the court system posed one of the highest political hurdles.

Governor Rockefeller, with his elite background and downstate roots, had to be careful not to offend the rural upstate powers in his own party, whom he was trying to convince that he was a real Republican. And, Mr. MacCrate said in an interview for this article, any effort to change the justice courts, a prime source of the party’s patronage, would be “really shaking the tree.”

Upstate Republicans often spoke as if criticism of the system was an attack on a way of life. “You boys from New York City have never seen a justice court,” State Senator Austin W. Erwin, a central player in the courts battle, said during a debate that year. “These justices are the backbone of honest-to-God human justice in our state.”

Governor Rockefeller, for all his talk of change, was surrounded by staunch defenders of the justice courts. Many were former justices, including Senator Erwin and L. Judson Morhouse, then the state Republican chairman and one of the governor’s earliest supporters.

The justices of the peace “were inside the system,” Elizabeth T. Schack, who led the League of Women Voters’ lobbying for court reform, said in an interview. Back in the legislators’ districts, too, the justices were powers to be reckoned with. “They were often people of importance and influence” who knew the lawmakers personally, Mrs. Schack said. “And you don’t like to go up against your friends.”

Most important, Mr. MacCrate said, upstate Republicans held such power in the Legislature that the administration knew that court reform could not pass without them. “We would find a way to bring them around,” he said.

They didn’t have to find a way; it came to them. Mr. MacCrate said that Fred Young, an influential state Court of Claims judge whom Governor Rockefeller would later choose as state Republican chairman, soon approached with an offer.

“Bob, if you take out that provision about abolishing the justices of the peace,” Mr. MacCrate recalled him saying, “I’ll have the votes for you” to approve statewide court reform that day or the next.

The deal was made.

That breakthrough would allow the entire court structure in New York to be streamlined and brought for the first time under centralized control. Yet while it included a requirement that local justices receive some basic training, it largely ensured there would be no other change in the biggest piece of the system: the hundreds of town and village courts.

“That was a turning point in terms of understanding how strong the opposition was,” recalled Fern Schair, the former chairwoman of the state’s leading court-reform group, the Committee for Modern Courts.

But the justices and their supporters did not stop there. To keep future legislatures from tampering with the system, they persuaded the administration to adopt language requiring a local referendum for any move to replace the town courts with more professional district courts. And for that referendum to pass, a simple majority of votes would not suffice; whether in a county or part of one, the proposal would have to win separate majorities in both urban and rural areas, so city dwellers could not impose modern courts on their country neighbors.

Even that, it turned out, was not enough. A year later, as Mr. MacCrate moved to secure approval from lawmakers, supporters of the justice courts demanded a provision requiring a majority vote in each town, Mr. MacCrate wrote in a memo. Towns where the referendum was defeated would be left out of any new system — a complication that would further discourage any reform effort.

They got their provision.

New Yorkers approved the court-reform amendment at the polls, and to this day, those protections for the justice courts are enshrined in the State Constitution. No place in New York has replaced its town and village courts since western Suffolk County began a district court system in 1962 — the year Governor Rockefeller signed his reforms into law.

A Showdown in Rockland

“If you oppose ‘school busing,’ Expanded Welfare, Down zoning, Charter Government, Mob rule legislation, Crime in the Street, Black Power,” vote no on Proposition No. 1, said the newspaper advertisement by the Conservative Party.

But Proposition No. 1 was not about any of those things. It was a ballot proposal to replace justice courts with a system of district courts in which the judges would be lawyers. After all the battles in Albany, it was the people’s turn to decide.

This was 1967 in Rockland County, a rural place fast becoming a suburb as new residents arrived by the carload from nearby New York City. Some newcomers were alarmed by their encounters with eccentric justices who could wield sweeping powers over people’s lives.

“The feeling was, they weren’t professionals and they were too closely connected to people who brought their cases to court,” Gloria English, a New City resident who worked for the proposal as a member of the League of Women Voters, said in a recent interview. “They often heard their friends’ cases.”

The league had several potent allies, including the county bar association and some leaders of both major political parties. The Democratic Party sponsored an ad saying it was high time the courts were modernized. The leading newspaper in the county ran editorials urging that the justice courts be brought into the 20th century.

On the other side were the justices and their supporters, including leaders of the county Conservative Party. They warned that the fancy new courts and their lawyer judges would cost more. The bar association estimated that expense at about $200,000 a year countywide, about $50,000 more than justice courts cost at the time. “I used that to bring to the attention of people: ‘It’s just another boondoggle,’ ” William E. Vines, then a justice in Clarkstown with a local insurance business, recalled in a recent interview.

There was also grass-roots backing for the justice courts, particularly among longtime residents. Arnold Becker, who was county public defender, said some people felt that familiar local justices would be more lenient than professional district judges.

But the campaign also played on emotions that had little to do with law or money.

The referendum’s opponents were not shy about fanning resentment toward outsiders. The warnings about mob rule and black power spoke to fears about turmoil in the cities, and about the city people moving in. There were stirring appeals to patriotism.

“Justice courts are as much of your American heritage as those Stars and Stripes,” one justice told a group of Jaycees two weeks before the election. “Don’t let them take it away.”

Adele Garber, then a young mother who had moved up from Queens and gone door to door on behalf of the ballot proposal, said that kind of passion easily overpowered her side’s arguments about fairness and efficiency. Voters without a vested interest in the justice courts, she said, did not seem to care much.

“It’s not a nice, sexy issue,” she said.

The referendum lost by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Mrs. Garber said the experience left her cynical, and she was not the only one. The Rockland vote and similar defeats in other counties helped create the impression that such fights are impossible to win.

Because of a change in state policy since then, if a county adopted a district court system today, the state would pick up the cost. Statewide, that expense could be significant, perhaps tens of millions of dollars.

County governments, though, might save millions by consolidating their many justice courts into fewer, more centralized district courts. But change has been stymied.

Keith D. Ahlstrom, chairman of the Chautauqua County Legislature, said that while he and others have long seen a need to modernize the courts there, the referendum process was so cumbersome it would almost certainly fail. For now, he and other officials are backing a state bill that would permit a few justice courts to merge to cut costs.

“We need to have a small success,” he said.

A Near-Miss in Court

The case was unremarkable: a teenager was arrested in Conesus, near Rochester, in 1981 and charged with menacing and trespassing. He was identified only as Charles F. because he was a minor. He faced up to a year in jail.

But his lawyer, J. Michael Jones, saw that the case had the potential to bring down the justice-court system in New York, and possibly in other states. The United States Supreme Court had ruled 20 years earlier that any defendant facing a jail sentence was entitled to a lawyer. But what good was that right, he asked, if the judge — like the town justice Charles F. faced — could not follow the lawyer’s arguments?

In a recent interview, Mr. Jones recalled that he spent thousands of dollars out of his own pocket taking the case through the appeals courts. “I thought this was a perfect opportunity for us to upgrade the local court system,” he said.

The time seemed ripe. In recent years, there had been a nationwide movement to recognize defendants’ rights. Justice courts around the country had been revamped after a 1967 presidential crime commission noted their long record of “incompetence.”

Some of the biggest changes were prompted by the courts. In 1974, the California Supreme Court ruled that imprisonment by a judge who did not have legal training was a violation of due process, and essentially ordered an end to the state’s justice courts.

“It seemed there was an opportunity, a movement afoot that was going to provide a court remedy where there had never been a legislative solution,” said Rene H. Reixach Jr., a Rochester lawyer who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the Charles F. case for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

A United States Supreme Court ruling in 1976 appeared to offer the means for challenging New York’s system. The court upheld the jailing of a Kentucky man by a justice who was a coal miner with no legal training, but only because state law guaranteed defendants tried by nonlawyer justices the automatic right to a new trial before a judge who was a lawyer.

In New York, however, there is no such right. A defendant can ask a county judge to take the case, but the judge can refuse — as happened in the Charles F. case.

When the case reached the state’s top court, the Court of Appeals, in 1983, Charles F.’s lawyers argued that in an era of increasingly complex legal protections for defendants, it was basic fairness that a person facing jail should have a judge trained to understand those protections. At the court’s chamber in Albany, Mr. Jones remembered, “we had lawyers from New York City who couldn’t believe we had this system.”

The court, which was developing a reputation for protecting defendants’ rights, seemed receptive. On it was the state’s chief judge at the time, Lawrence H. Cooke, and the two judges who would succeed him: Sol Wachtler and Judith S. Kaye.

Mr. Wachtler, in a recent interview, said the three strongly agreed that the state’s use of justices without law schooling was a problem. “There was unquestionably a sentiment on our parts that this is just not right,” he said.

But when the vote came, they were on the losing side of a 4-to-3 decision. New Yorkers, the majority ruled, had no absolute right to be heard by a judge trained in the law.

Richard D. Simons, the only surviving judge in that majority, said in an interview that the case posed a narrow legal issue: whether New York provided sufficient opportunity for a higher-court trial. The larger matter of the justice courts’ fairness, he said, was for the Legislature to decide.

Mr. Wachtler said he believed that the case would have gone the other way if it had come to the Court of Appeals just a year or two later, given changes in the court’s makeup and stance on defendants’ rights.

But the court has not grappled with the issue since. Mr. Reixach, the Rochester lawyer, said the ruling discouraged him and others from raising further challenges. “The Charles F. case, whether you agreed with it or not,” he said, “sealed the fate of the justice-court system in the state for a very long time.”

Judge Kaye, who wrote the dissenting opinion, has since become a champion of court reform as New York’s chief judge, heading the Court of Appeals and the administration of all the courts. But the legislation she has proposed to modernize the system since taking office in 1993 has consistently omitted the justice courts.

Only this summer did Judge Kaye address problems in the local courts, after the state comptroller warned that they could be mishandling millions of dollars, and after a commission she created to study legal services for the poor reported that those courts were routinely trampling on people’s rights.

Her office has said that while it has limited control over the justice courts, it would begin trying to remedy some of their flaws, with measures that do not require legislative approval.

Those steps are the most ambitious attempted in several decades, but their very nature underscores the courts’ deficiencies: Justices, according to the state’s plan, will get two weeks of initial training instead of six days. For the first time, all justices will be given computers, fax machines and tape recorders, and be required to tape proceedings. A supervising judge will be named in each judicial district to oversee them.

And the improvements do not touch what critics of the justice courts have repeatedly said are their gravest defects: the use of part-time justices who are not lawyers, the reliance on towns and villages to finance the courts, and the state’s weak authority over the courts.

Tackling those issues would involve the Legislature — and invite another battle. Judge Kaye declined requests for an interview.

One of the justice courts’ most powerful defenders has been the State Association of Towns. Its executive director, G. Jeffrey Haber, said the group would be ready for another fight.

“If it came up,” he said, “we would take the same position that we did before.”


October 1, 2006

Homespun Injustice

The idea of a village judge sounds appealing, like a Mayberry elder perhaps, or a folksy, no-nonsense justice of the peace. But a Times series by William Glaberson has revealed the appalling ways some of New York’s hometown justices really work.

These part-time judges — most of whom are not lawyers — have been known to jail people without a plea or a trial. They have removed people from their homes improperly or made racist or sexist comments. They have kept courtrooms closed to the public and skewed rulings for friends; one let a rape suspect out of jail as a favor. As one justice explained: “I just follow my own common sense. And the hell with the law.”

Even a defendant faced with a speeding ticket deserves a fair and legal proceeding — no matter where. Some states, like California and Delaware, have added resources and toughened educational requirements for community courts. But New York has resisted any real reform of its 1,250 justice courts for almost a century, and for one main reason: they’re golden. They provide jobs or extra income and the fines and fees bring in lots of money.

So although only about 400 of New York’s 2,300 justices are certified lawyers, a local justice needs only one week’s training to start the job. There is no rule that the proceedings have to be recorded, making complaints more difficult. And there is no systematic way to tell whether that $100 traffic fine actually went into the town treasury.

The best reform, already in practice on Long Island, would consolidate caseloads and use only full-time, trained judges. Until the day of that reform, New York’s chief judge, Judith Kaye, should proceed swiftly with improvements of these grass-roots courts. Among the best would be to standardize records for court proceedings and collecting fines.

Additionally, and here is where New York’s next governor will come in, the Commission on Judicial Conduct desperately needs help. Over the last 30 years, the group charged with investigating judicial conduct has been whittled to a staff of 29 facing over 1,500 complaints.

Even in the tiny justice courts, defendants deserve protection for their basic legal rights.