Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Sandefur tipped me off to this story, which he writes up at his blog. I had no idea that New York has more than 1200 town and village courts, which they inaccurately call “justice courts,” that operate as little more than star chambers presided over by local yahoos who know nothing about the law. Most of them don’t have judges, they just have local citizens in charge of them.

The New York Times reported on them in 2006. These courts are supposed to be set up to handle little more than local traffic tickets or small claims, but in reality they do much more than that.

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.

Since that article was written, legislators have made some attempts to reform those courts. Unfortunately, the Times reported last month that those efforts have stalled.

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.

Aww gee, the “stature” of a local garbageman wielding enormous legal power over their communities is threatened? How terrible. Forget reform, those courts should be abolished immediately.