Civil Rights Round Up
Define That Term # 146

New York's Town and Village Justice Courts

There is a really interesting New York Times article about the Town and Village Justice Courts in New York.  (Hat tip:  Legal Reader and Long Island (Criminal) Trial Law.)  From the article:

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...

Many justices preside in intimidatingly tight quarters, admitting participants one by one. Many have heard testimony, settled claims or ruled in criminal cases without notifying the prosecutor, lawyers or even the people directly involved. Some justices can be very selective, state records show: At a 1999 criminal trial in Kinderhook, south of Albany, Justice Edward J. Williams admitted everyone but the victim’s lawyer.

During my first few years as an Assistant Public Defender, I was assigned to nearly half of the Town and Village Courts in Monroe County and found that, by and large, most Village and Town Court judges were extremely competent, although there were a few notable exceptions.  And, a law degree was not necessarily indicative of competence on the bench.  One the the best judges, in my opinion, was a retired state trooper.

That being said, there were judges who didn't follow the law and it was always frustrating to appear in their courts. 

I was not at all surprised to read about the abuses of power described in the article, which probably occur more frequently in the more rural counties in this state.  I've heard a number of horror stories from other attorneys and experienced a few myself.

The last paragraph quoted above reminded me of an experience that I had in a Justice Court in an outlying county a few years back.  I attended court for another attorney at my law firm who had a scheduling conflict.  I appeared in court with the male client who was dressed in casual clothing and was clearly not an attorney.   After signing in, we waited for more than an hour for his case to be called as other cases were called out of turn, including men who were unrepresented by counsel. 

The judge refused to acknowledge or even look at me, although I was assured by Court personnel that he would call my client's case eventually.  I began to get frustrated and stood up as each case ended, in the hopes that the judge would notice me, to no avail.  On the last occasion, my client stood up as well, and miraculously the judge spoke to him, asked the name of the matter, and then called his case.  The judge directed all of his comments to my client and never once acknowledged my presence, although I made sure to state my presence as his counsel for the "record", although no court reporter was present.  The judge didn't even glance my way.  Needless to say, it was a humiliating and frustrating experience--especially sine I'd been practicing law for nearly 6 years at that point.

A few weeks later, the client forwarded papers to me that he had received from the court.  They had been sent to his house and failed to reflect that he had been represented by counsel.  I called the court clerk and she revised the Court's records to indicate that I had appeared on our client's behalf and from that point on, documents from the court were sent to our office. 

That was the only time in my career that I was completely ignored and discounted by virtue of something so clearly out of my control:  my gender.  I can assure you, it wasn't a pleasant experience.  I can only imagine what it was like to be a female victim of domestic violence in that courtroom, although this quote from the article about a different town court judge likely sums up the experience: 

In 20 years in office in Haverstraw, north of New York City in Rockland County, Justice Ralph T. Romano drew attention for his opinions on women, state files show. Arraigning a man in 1997 on charges that he had hit his wife in the face with a telephone, he laughed and asked, “What was wrong with this?” Arraigning a woman on charges that she had sexually abused a 12-year-old boy, the justice asked his courtroom, “Where were girls like this when I was 12?”

And, in case you were wondering, when my male colleague appeared in court on the next court date, his case was heard immediately and the judge actually spoke directly to him.  Imagine that.

Comments

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Bill Chaisson

Ms. Black,

I am a reporter for several community newspapers and attend village and town meetings in rural areas on a routine basis.

I have to admit to being surprised at how unfamiliar with cultural diversity some small-town officials seem to be.

In addition to your being a woman, you also may have been discriminated against by that town justice because you were obviously "not from around here". Which is to say you looked like an upper middle class urbanite who might be (gulp) an ethnic (non-Anglo) American.

Although I spent my adolescence in a Hudson Valley mill town I went on to a career in academia and was actually a professor at the University of Rochester before moving away and changing career trajectories.

I do not advertise my background when I am covering local town government. I have watched the proverbial drawbridge go up enough times.

I am not disputing that you were discriminated against because of your gender. Rather it might have been that and more.

Next time you are in the hinterlands, make note how the local professional woman act and dress. I'm sure they get done what they need to get done. Some small-town men (and women) are jerks, but most are just provincial.

As an East Coast urbanite, I was somewhat taken aback by the provincialism of Rochester when I moved there in 1991. It is, I'm afraid, all relative.

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