New York Judicial System in Need of Repair at the Grassroots Level

Although our own political views are centrist and although we tend to take a hard line on criminality, we nevertheless hold that essential elements of the American legal system require considerable improvement and reform.

For example, we recently reviewed David Feige’s Indefensible: One Lawyer’s Journey into the Inferno of American Justice, which gave a Bronx defender’s insider views of the deficiencies in the criminal justice system in New York state.

The New York Times now has a series of articles by William Glaberson (The Broken Bench : Part 1 (This is Not America) : Part 2 (You Learn by Mistakes) : Part 3 (forthcoming)) on everyday justice in town and village courts, known as justice courts, in the small towns and villages in New York state.

The picture that these courts present about justice at the grassroots in New York state is not only bad, it is devastatingly bad.

Typical for findings by the New York Times is Franklin County “where only one of the 32 local justices is a lawyer“. Some of the 1,971 part-time justices in New York State have only high school educations and are ill-prepared for their legal positions. The New York Times writes:

“[S]everal people in the small town of Dannemora were intimidated by their longtime justice … a phone-company repairman who cursed at defendants and jailed them without bail or a trial…. This justice was quoted in an interview as saying of his 13 years on the bench: ‘I just follow my own common sense … And the hell with the law.’

[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.

There are still 30 states in the United States with these kinds of justices:

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.

The problem is that these are elective positions, and much like the same problem we increasingly face in the persons elected to U.S. Congress, this means that more and more people are occupying important positions of public trust without having the requisite education, skill or training to carry out their jobs properly. The New York Times continues:

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.“

Although this may seem to the reader to be a “local” New York state problem, it has in fact a more wide-reaching component internationally, pointing to serious deficiencies in the American legal system. And these deficiencies are among the tangible reasons why the United States currently has such a significant image problem in the rest of the world.

It is next to impossible to hold the rest of the world to higher standards than one demands at home. Hence, although it is necessary as a matter of domestic and foreign security for the United States in the current age of terrorism to police the world against international criminals, it is just as important to police a judicial “clean house” domestically. If we ourselves practice “cowboy justice” at the grassroots in the USA, we should not wonder if “cowboy justice” is seen as justified in the countries in whose political and legal systems we are trying to inculcate democracy in order to eliminate THEIR “cowboy justice”.