Among the litigants on the docket for Town of Fort Edward Justice Joseph Malvuccio on a recent day was Karen Segrell, who had been ticketed for driving a car with a busted muffler and without a license.
“You get the muffler fixed?” Malvuccio asked Segrell as she approached the judge, who presided over a small courtroom with wood paneling and a maximum occupancy of 80.
Segrell unfurled a long sheaf of papers—her receipts from a local mechanic.
The licensing issue, however, was a different story—she’s had her identity stolen several times over the past year, she explained to the judge.
“I’m going through some identity issues,” she said. Malvuccio said he would dismiss Segrell’s charge of driving without a license and ordered her to check back with the court in a few weeks.
Malvuccio, who once worked as a police dispatcher, is one of New York’s roughly 1,850 jurists presiding over town and village courts—and like more than 1,110 of the state’s small-town justices, he is not a lawyer.
While that may seem like a quaint feature for a state that’s considered an elite legal powerhouse, there’s no sign that it will go away anytime soon: over the past century, well-meaning reformers have pushed to do away with town and village courts—or at least require the justices to have law degrees—only to see their efforts thwarted.
But for its part, the Office of Court Administration has done what it can to improve New York’s small-town courts, including the launch of a pilot program last year in four counties to hold centralized arraignments at fixed times of the day, which has drawn interest from other counties.
Malvuccio’s court is in Washington County, one of the four counties taking part in the pilot program.
Appearing on the day of Segrell’s case was Assistant District Attorney Joseph Frandino of the Washington County District Attorney’s Office, a young, fourth-year prosecutor whose former high school economics teacher, Paul Manchester, is also a nonlawyer judge who sits in the Granville town and village court, a 30-minute drive up from Fort Edward.
Manchester has been on the bench for 25 years and is one of 10 judges taking part in the new centralized arraignments program. But he said he still thinks the smaller courts are well-suited for delivering a more compassionate and personalized brand of justice to his fellow residents, who are often former, current or future students of his.
“I know them, I like them,” Manchester said of some of those who have appeared before him over the years. “I treat them like human beings.”
But not all of New York’s town and village justices are known for their warm approach to the defendants who come before them, which has contributed to calls throughout the years to abolish the small-town courts altogether.
Additionally, the town and village justices make up the majority of the targets of determinations issued by the Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state’s judicial watchdog.
From 1978, when the commission was permanently established by constitutional amendment, to April 25, the commission has issued 835 total determinations in which a judge was removed from the bench, publicly censured, publicly admonished or entered into a stipulation in which he or she agreed to retire or resign.
Town and village justices were the subjects of 584 of the commission’s determinations.
In one recent example, Kenneth Lafave, an Ellenburg Town Court justice who is not an attorney, agreed to step down from the bench and never again seek office after he signed a warrant to evict a couple from their home without holding a hearing and without the landlord properly commencing eviction proceedings.
When he did hold a hearing in the matter, Lafave failed to administer the oath to witnesses, improperly ordered the tenants to vacate the rental property and unlawfully awarded their security deposit to the landlord.
Additionally, during an ex parte exchange, Lafave told the tenants’ attorney he felt they were untrustworthy while threatening one of the tenants with reinstating the eviction warrant.
While judges presiding over upstate courts, and specifically those who are not lawyers, have no monopoly on ethical infractions involving judges, the town and village courts have been targeted over the years by various committees and action plans, and court officials, judges and attorneys say there have been changes for the better.
Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of the state Court of Appeals who served as OCA’s chief administrative judge in 2006 when the court system floated an action plan to improve the courts, said executing the recommendations in the plan has resulted in systemic changes for the small-town courts and that they have become a “different place.”
“Nothing’s perfect, but those courts are head and shoulders from where they were a few years ago,” Lippman said.
A Stubborn System
Town justices, who are elected and paid for by their local communities, have jurisdiction over civil matters involving $3,000 or less, vehicle and traffic cases, and misdemeanor and petty criminal matters.
The justices also have the power to jail defendants for up to one year, grant orders of protection, evict tenants and even officiate weddings.
The vast town and village court system, currently being used in all 57 of New York’s 62 counties located outside of New York City, is a holdover from the colonial days when lawyers were relatively scarce.
Town and village courts can be found in a wide variety of community types—from sprawling suburbs to tiny mill towns—and thus how often the courts are convened, how sophisticated their facilities are and how much staff they have on hand can vary substantially from county to county.
Cost is often cited as a major factor in leaving the old town and village system in place, but over the years local political support has largely insulated the courts and the nonlawyer judges presiding over them from major changes.
In 1936, according to the court system’s 2006 action plan for the town and village courts, the state legislature voted to abolish the town courts in Nassau County and replace them with a district court.
This model spread to communities in western Suffolk County a few decades later, but the district court model has failed to catch on statewide.
In the 1950s, according to the action plan, a committee popularly known as the “Tweed Commission,” which studied the court system for more than five years, recommended replacing the town and village courts with county-level district courts and magistrate courts that would be free from local control and in which all judges would be lawyers.
But the plan went nowhere: the commission reversed itself in a subsequent report, finding that there was deeply rooted support from local residents, elected officials and the town and village justices themselves for leaving the courts as is.
“Indeed, the commission found reason to believe that, even if its proposals in this respect were accepted by the legislature and formed a part of an overall court reorganization plan, the voters of the state on the required referendum for a constitutional amendment might well defeat the entire plan because of this aspect alone,” the commission wrote.
In the 1960s, when state leaders set out to improve and simplify what was then considered a balkanized, outdated court system, the justice courts were left largely unchanged, except for requiring justices to have some measure of basic training.
In 1967, the year that the state passed the Uniform Justice Court Act, Rockland County residents campaigned for a ballot referendum to replace the justice courts there with a district court.
But, according to a 2006 series by The New York Times outlining issues facing the town and village courts, the opposition to the proposal was stiff and took on a fractious tone that reflected the political zeitgeist of the day.
In one ad deriding the ballot measure, called Proposition 1, the local Conservative Party said voting against the measure was akin to opposing ”school busing, expanded welfare, down zoning, charter government, mob rule legislation, crime in the street, black power.”
The opposition won, which dealt a demoralizing blow to those in other jurisdictions who wanted to rid themselves of the smaller courts.
In 1983, the issue of nonlawyer judges went all the way to the state Court of Appeals.
In that case, attorneys for an upstate teenager argued that right to counsel is useless if a judge isn’t a lawyer.
But in a 4-3 ruling, the majority found that defendants have no absolute right under the U.S. or state constitutions to appear before a judge.
In a dissent, Judge Judith Kaye—who 10 years later would become chief judge of the state judiciary and who signed off on the court system’s 2006 action plan—said that defendants facing imprisonment should have the option of appearing before a judge with legal training.
“While lay judges bring a welcome sense of community values and practical wisdom to the courtroom, when a trial is conducted before a jury, those perspectives are furnished by the jury,” Kaye wrote.
While there is a shrinking number of states allowing nonlawyers to preside over courts, New York is one of more than 20 that still do so, and is one of seven in which nonlawyer jurists have the authority to hand down jail sentences for misdemeanors.
Montana, one of those seven states, previously gave defendants facing incarceration the option of appearing before a lawyer-judge, but the state legislature changed the rule in 2003 as a cost-saving measure, according to papers filed by two defendants in Montana who were convicted of drunk driving.
The defendants challenged their convictions on due process grounds, but the Montana Supreme Court upheld the conviction. The defendants filed for a writ of certiorari to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, but last year the high court declined to take up the case, thus leaving the Montana Supreme Court ruling in place.
Changes for the Better
For more than a decade, the court system has been taking steps to improve town and village courts: it has stepped up training efforts, set up a 24/7 hotline for judges to call in for legal advice and has equipped the courts with digital recorders to ensure there are clear records of their proceedings, to name a few examples.
But, earlier this year, a diverse New York State Bar Association committee made up of academics, public defenders, prosecutors, court clerks, representatives for law enforcement groups and a nonlawyer town justice who previously served as president of the New York State Magistrates Association released a report detailing ongoing problems with the courts and what can be done to improve them.
It also addressed an issue that affects courts across the state: ensuring that defendants are properly represented.
Courthouses in some counties don’t have conference rooms for defense attorneys to meet with their clients during arraignments, the report states, and thus may have to speak with defendants in the presence of an arresting officer who is keeping an eye on the prisoner.
Town and village judges are trained to discourage guilty pleas at arraignment, but the report states that some defendants get nervous and plead guilty to charges just so they can get out of the courthouse and get back home.
Without a lawyer at arraignment, defendants could potentially languish in jail for days or even weeks, the report states.
As for suggestions to improve the courts, unlike many similar groups before it, the state bar committee did not recommend a requirement that town and village justices obtain law degrees.
Many observers and court officials are quick to point out that judges with J.D.s are not immune from trouble, and that most town and village justices avoid being the target of determinations by the Commission on Judicial Conduct.
“I think people deserve to have a lawyer judging them,” said Richard Emery, a name partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady who previously served on the conduct commission. “But you have to be realistic, and there are a lot of people who are not lawyers who can do a very good job.”
The state bar group did recommend, however, that defense attorneys and prosecutors should be present for all arraignments and that town and village judges receive diversity training.
The committee also recommended expansion of a pilot program that the court system launched in four rural counties with hopes of addressing the representation issue: holding centralized arraignments at designated times in the evenings and the weekends.
In addition to Washington County, which has held more than 420 arraignments since October, the pilot has been conducted in Broome, Oneida, Onondaga counties.
And starting on June 4, Ontario and Livingston counties will join in and begin operating their own centralized arraignment parts, according to an OCA spokesman.
The establishment of the pilot program was driven by a settlement in Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, a class action suit filed in 2007 on behalf of 20 criminal defendants alleging that their constitutional rights were being violated inadequate funding and lackluster oversight of New York’s public defender system.
Manchester, one of the Washington County judges working in his county’s centralized arraignment part, said that since the county has had centralized arraignments, all defendants coming before him have had attorneys available to them.
Frandino, a Washington County prosecutor, said the centralized arraignment system has been good for prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants alike. Under the old system, he said, prosecutors would get called up to show up to arraignments around-the-clock, regardless of the weather or whether or not the prosecutor had a full docket of cases ahead in the morning, and drive “all over God’s green earth” to far-flung courts around their counties where oftentimes the only security was being provided by a single arresting officer.
“Where you started to lose your mind is when you had two or three bad nights in a row,” Frandino said.
Among his fellow judges, Manchester said there was “hemming and hawing” about the new system, but that he has ceased hearing any negative feedback.
As for the town and village system as a whole, he said that there’s still a sense among some of his fellow judges that they know what’s best for their communities, not the big shots in New York City or to the know-it-alls in Albany.
But in his more than two decades on the bench in a town that has fewer than 7,000 residents, he said he has seen the system improve.
For example, some time ago it was more commonplace for someone who owes a court fine to just swing by a judge’s place of business outside of the courthouse and pay up. Now, he said, “everyone knows you pay the clerk.”
“Everything is much more above-board than it was kind of in the old days,” he said. “At least around here.”