Upstream. A Mohawk Valley Blogzine.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Upstate New York Small Town Justice.

Note: A reader brought to my attention a three part series by The New York Times on Upstate New York’s system of town justices. It’s a series worth reading. You might have to sign up for a free New York Times account in order to access the complete articles.

Here is the opening of the first article.

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. 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.


Below are quotes from the first article that deal with justices in the Mohawk Valley. These cases were minor compared to some in other parts of the state.

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.”


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.


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.


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.


Read the first part of the series. This is Not America. In Tiny Courts of N.Y., Abuses of Law and Power.

Read the second part of the series. You Learn by Mistakes. Small-Town Justice, With Trial and Error.

Read the third part of the series. Nothing Gets Done. How a Reviled Court System Has Outlasted Critics.

4 Comments:

  • I saw this on NYCO's blog too and read the Times story...all 8 or 9 pages of it. Astonishing to see so much about local courts in the big T and so very unflattering.

    By Blogger threecollie, at 6:37 AM  

  • I missed NYCO's blog. I will have to read it. While I would like to see justices have more legal training, I'm not sure that requiring them to be lawyers will insure justice. I would like to see The NY Times do an investigative report on justice in courts run by judges who are lawyers and see what they find out.

    By Blogger Dan Weaver, at 8:50 AM  

  • I would like to see the New York Times do a report on District Attorneys like Patricia DeAngelis of Rensselaer County. She has abused her power on quite a few occassions most notably in the Jack Carroll case in which she railroaded an innocent man to jail with a lot of help from lying cops.

    By Anonymous Ernie Tetrault, at 9:11 AM  

  • I would like to see the New York Times do a report on District Attorneys like Patricia DeAngelis of Rensselaer County. She has abused her power on quite a few occassions most notably in the Jack Carroll case in which she railroaded an innocent man to jail with a lot of help from lying cops.

    By Anonymous Ernie Tetrault, at 9:12 AM  

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