Monday, September 25, 2006

Law Gone to Hell: A Reason to Live in the City

Make Love Not Debt has a recent post on Where to Live: Urban vs. Sub(urban). I've talked about this topic here and there, as of course it is always an ongoing question for New Yorkers with moderate incomes. But in today's NY Times, there was a front page story that has added another big reason to stay in the city: if I ever find myself in court for any reason, I know the case will be presided over by a judge who actually has some legal training. If I lived in a small town upstate, that might not be the case.
Check out this terrifying article, the first of three in a series:
In Tiny Courts of N.Y., 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.”
I've talked to a few people about this today, and none of us were aware that these courts worked this way. I was truly shocked. To become one of these justices, all you have to do is get elected. Then,
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?

SIX DAYS of training? For someone who has the power to impose jail sentences of up to two years? In a court system that annually handles over $200 million worth of fines and fees? That is scary.
“I just follow my own common sense,” [one judge], in an interview, said of his 13 years on the bench. “And the hell with the law.”

I've never had to go to court over anything and I hope I never do, but to me, avoiding attitudes like that judge's is worth a higher cost of living!


Tired of being broke said...

I just read this article today, and I second what you said. I am happy I live in the city, at least I know the carpenter next door won't be my judge.
am absoulutly alarmed that in 2006 stuff like this happens. I am printing it out for a friend who is contemplating moving up to northern Rockland County area.

mapgirl said...

Good grief! That's a pretty frightening story. 'To hell with the law?' A statement like that would get a judge in most jurisdictions disbarred as well and removed from the bench. Oh. Right. He wasn't a lawyer in the first place so there's no real punishment for statements like that...

Hm. I will definitely have to file away this factoid for any of my friends thinking of leaving the safety and comfort of NYC's legal system.

mOOm said...

I've always found electing judges to be an odd American peculiarity. I assumed though they'd have to be a lawyer. I didn't even know we had a City Court - just Googled it. It is a lot less impressive looking than the County Court.

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