The New York Law Journal’s article entitled Are Times Changing For Old-School Town and Village Courts In New York? is rhetorical. It answers the question by telling us that there is no change in that out of the 1,850 town and village judges statewide, 1,110 are not lawyers.
Colonial justice where judges had to “ride the circuit” on horseback prior to our founding as a nation in 1787 and thereafter for a hundred years, has largely been done away with everywhere except in upstate New York where the New York State Magistrates’ Association continues to cling to that legal, idiosyncratic concept of non-lawyers as judges. With over 100,000 attorneys in New York State, the notion that there is a shortage of lawyers to serve as judges in these rural courts is outmoded to say the very least.
Except in Nassau, town and village Justices can arraign defendants on felonies; conduct jury trials on misdemeanors and sentence defendants up to a year in jail. They can preside over landlord/tenant matters, evicting people from their homes and award money judgments. Meanwhile the justice can be the local gas station attendant or barber. College or associate’s degrees are not required.
Most of the disciplinary matters prosecuted by the Judicial Conduct Commission are against these upstate, non-lawyer judges. The practice continues because our state Legislature and governor are afraid to change it. They do not want to fight against the New York State Magistrates’ Association so the practice continues.
When The New York Times published two articles about these antiquated courts, our former chief judge at the time, Judith Kaye, established a Special Commission to look into the matter. I testified before it but I was one of the few to speak out against non-lawyer judges. Judge Kaye thereafter established JCAP (Justice Court Assistance Program) which has allowed these local courts to upgrade their facilities by applying for grants to, for example, buy computers or law books including one that I have founded and co-authored as a Practice Guide for these local courts. It has become the bible in a much needed industry. There is also a requirement of Continuing Legal Education.
With nearly twenty law schools in New York, venerated junior colleges and a state university system, it is beyond bizarre that we have allowed for a continuation of a system in our modern, complex world where non-lawyer judges preside.
Thomas F. Liotti is an attorney in Garden City and a Village Justice in Westbury for 28 years. He is the co-author of A Practice Guide to the Village, Town and District Courts of New York (Thomson, Reuters, West, 1995 – present). He is the former Chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section.