The practices of New York State’s “village justices” have long been the subject of deep concern. These judges are empowered to hear a variety of low-stakes cases at the local level. But most lack any legal training, resulting in poor practices, questionable procedures, and misapplications of the law.
Perhaps this type of local magistrate made sense in the nineteenth century, when it was necessary to have a judicial figure in each town or village to address on-the-spot legal disputes. But the continued practice raises a variety of significant, ongoing ethics concerns.
In 2006, the New York Times published an expose on the questionable practices of village justices, finding examples of judicial intimidation, open racism, jailing defendants capriciously and without bail, and willful ignorance of applicable law.
Not much happened in response. But this week, the issue roared back once again. New York State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct published a report emphasizing (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the most frequent and common ethical lapses in the state judiciary are committed by town and village justices who lack legal training. Examples of such lapses include posting case details on social media, and failing to create a record of any court proceedings for eight years.
There are currently no plans to change the system. No surprise there, either.
A new program, launched in the Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn, will provide books for minors to read while waiting for their court hearings. The first shelf of donated books is now available in Brooklyn’s Adolescent and Young Adult Diversion Court.
Previously, residents were “arbitrarily prohibited” from reading books in court, the nonprofit said. The Legal Aid Society worked to get the pilot program in place for over two years with the help of the Office of Court Administration, Judge Craig Walker — who presided over APY — and others, the organization said.
Books already provided by Penguin [Random] House for the program include “Decoded” by Jay-Z, “Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah, “Ghettoside” by Jill Leovy and several by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“What better way to help stimulate a mind in a positive way than to provide a book,” said Hon. Craig S. Walker, presiding judge of the Criminal Term Youth Part, Kings County Supreme Court. “It may seem like a small and meaningless gesture to some, but if we want these young people to aspire to do better, we need to provide them with the right tools in order for them to achieve their goals. That starts right there, in the Courtroom.”
This sounds like a great program, and kudos to those visionary enough to cut through the red tape to make it happen. One would think that eliminating the “arbitrar[y] prohibit[ion]” of reading books while waiting for a hearing would have been an easy call.
The first batch of donated books is understandably designed to appeal to the court’s users and stimulate their interest. But some of the cited authors have histories of anti-Semitic comments and other troubling behavior. And the program seems to be missing an opportunity to expose the same readers to great works of American civics and legal fiction. I hope that as the program expands, it will come to include more books like To Kill a Mockingbird and David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass, and relatively less Jay Z and Trevor Noah.
Two remarkable, parallel stories broke this week, each involving the transfer of a state judge to another division within the court system. In Pennsylvania, Judge Lyris Younge was transferred from her longstanding seat in Philadelphia Family Court to the Court of Common Pleas Civil Division. It’s an odd move, given that Younge has almost no civil experience, and that the Civil Division is typically a landing spot for the state’s most highly competent judges. Insiders speculate that the transfer was an administrative effort to “hide” Younge in the Civil Division until an ethics probe related to her (apparently obnoxious) behavior in the Family Court is resolved.
In an eerily similar move in New York, Judge Armando Montano was reassigned from his longstanding seat on the Bronx Criminal Part to the Bronx Domestic Violence Part–a change that Judge Montano has characterized as a “disguised punishment.” Montano argues that moving him from felony cases to domestic violence cases is essentially a demotion. The court administrator disagreed, claiming that it was a “routine administrative reassignment” and that the domestic violence cases that Montano would be handling are “complex.”
The players in both stories seem to be hiding key facts here. Surely there was something specific motivating the transfer to Judge Montano, who is nearing retirement, to an entirely different division. And surely there is some internal reason for transferring Judge Younge to a division in which she has virtually no experience. And those reasons must be significant, since the outcome in both cases is worse for the litigants who are now slated to appear before the judge. Bronx DV litigants can look forward to a disgruntled Judge Montano, who believes that he is above having to rule on their cases. And Philadelphia litigants can hold their breath over Judge Younge’s competence to decide their matters–not to mention her own anger over reassignment. The judges, of course, are keeping mum about their respective behaviors that led to the reassignments.
These incidents keenly demonstrate the complexity of organizational management within a court system. Unable to completely remove judges (who, for reasons of competence, ethics, temperament, or some combination of the three) should not be on the bench, court administrators have to resort to reassignment mechanisms to reduce ongoing problems. When the issues are made public, there is often little they can say. But we can surely read between the lines.
This article provides a nice peek into the construction of the Ulster County (N.Y.) Family Court, a $10 million project that will eventually house new courtrooms, conference rooms, hearing rooms, office space, and a holding facility. There is nothing particularly unusual about the project, but if offers a glimpse into the community’s vision for the building.
This paragraph in particular struck me:
The new court’s location near the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, Department of Social Services, and the Office for the Aging — all at Development Court — will mean Family Court and the services most used by people who come through the court will be in one place, providing for a better continuum of care, Hein said.
That’s a point that could be easily overlooked, but it makes a big difference to the court’s primary users.
The New York Times reports on a walkout by some New York City public defenders, who left their jobs while court was still in session yesterday in order to protest courthouse arrests by federal immigration authorities. It was the second such walkout this week. Having warned the PDs not to leave their posts while court was in session, court administrators quickly reassigned ten cases to private attorneys. From the story:
The public defense organizations saw it as punishment for political advocacy; court administrators saw it as a matter of keeping the courts running.
“We say, ‘By you doing what you did, you are disrupting operations,’” said Lucian Chalfen, the spokesman for the O.C.A. “We won’t have that. It helps no one.”
The Legal Aid society argues that the reassignments were retaliatory, but at first blush it seems that the court administrators were in the right. Their job is to keep the criminal justice system moving, and assure that indigent defendants are adequately represented. Whatever one thinks of the policies motivating the walkout, the primary harm of the walkout is to the clients who need representation right then and there. Nor was the walkout directly tied to the PDs’ ability to represent their clients in New York State court; there was no direct benefit to their clients.* That this was the second walkout this week, and the fifth this year, justifies the court’s firm response.
* I recognize the argument that many of the PDs’ clients are the very people most susceptible to ICE raids. So there is certainly some overlap between the policies motivating the walkout and the needs of defendants who need public defenders. But the relationship is still indirect, and ultimately too tangential to warrant direct and continued disruption of court operations.
Howstuffworks.com has a detailed and very interesting article on the history of drug courts and the work they do today, with a particular focus on the courts in Buffalo, New York. It’s a good read for those interested in how the court system has adapted to contemporary challenges.