Hello my fellow Magistrates.
There is an old curse “May you live in interesting times.” that applies to the circumstances we find ourselves in today.
We, as Town and Village Judges, from all across New York State, from all manner of professions and all manner of personal backgrounds, find our courts under attack.
We are often described in negative terms in the media, by certain politicians and certain Bar Association leaders, most of whom have never set foot in our courts.
As many of you know, this last spring, the State Bar Association published a report calling for the 100 largest Town and Village Courts in the state to only have Attorney Justices.
Both the New York State Senate and the Assembly have crafted bills to make this assault on Justice Courts and local elections a reality.
This recent salvo is an attempt not just to fundamentally change those 100 largest courts, but to change the entire Town and Village justice system into an Attorney only, or District Court, system.
This is why it is so URGENT for all of you to contact your local representatives and tell them to oppose both the Senate bill S 0139-B and the Assembly bill A 1358-B, also known as the Top 100 Bill.
This is why it is the first item on NYSMA’s legislative agenda this year.
As we all know, New York State’s close to 1,200 Town and Village courts and nearly 1,800 Town and Village Justices are made up of both Attorneys and Non-Attorneys.
Opponents to Town and Village Courts don’t seem to understand that there are NO prohibitions keeping attorneys from running for any Town and Village Justice positions.
That is worth repeating to Albany and the State Bar Association.
There are NO prohibitions keeping attorneys from running for the Town and Village Justice positions.
Not even in the 100 largest Town and Village Courts.
The real purpose of these bills is to take away the right of the people in those communities to chose, through the ballot, those who serve them in a judicial capacity.
I am not aware of ANY study that has ever shown that non-attorney judges have been appealed or overturned at greater rate than ANY of their attorney judicial counterparts.
A complete review of official findings from the Commission on Judicial Conduct would show that Town and Village Judges, whether non-attorney or attorney, have been disciplined by the Commission on Judicial Conduct at a roughly similar percentage rate to their judicial counterparts in higher courts.
We, as the Town and Village Courts, make up 2/3rds of the Judges in the Unified Court system, yet in the commission’s latest report, we received only 13% of the filed complaints.
The idea that Town and Village Courts provide less justice than any other court in the Unified Court System is insulting to ALL of the hardworking men and women who professionally make up these courts.
I quote, in part, from the “Action Plan for the Justice Courts,” Page 43, paragraph 4. It was issued by Chief Judge Judith Kaye and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman AFTER AN EXTENSIVE STUDY.
“… most non-attorney justices perform their judicial roles admirably and well. Their professionalism, diligence and dedication are apparent, they take very seriously their Judicial roles and their duties continually to improve their knowledge of the law, and over the years exceptions to these principles have been relatively few in number.”
What has changed over the last 17 years?
Currently, each town or village elects the person they feel will best serve them as Justice. In some cases they are an attorney, and in some cases they are not.
It should be for the individual communities to decide, not the New York Bar Association or politicians in Albany.
I encourage anyone, especially critics of the Town and Village Justice system, Attorneys or Non-Attorneys alike, who are interested in a “low paying, mostly part time (except for being on call 24/7/365 days a year), challenging, and often thankless, job”, to run for the position.
If critics want to make the justice system more just, I invite them to start at the grass roots level.
They should investigate what it takes to be a Town and Village Justice, run for office, win, under take the training and pass every exam, and then dedicate their time in a practical way to ensure that all people in their communities are always receiving justice.
Since most won’t do that, I propose that the best way to improve Justice in our courts is not with their idea of removal of Non-Attorney Justices, but with continued and increased education for all.
The 2006 Action Plan for Justice Courts helped to create a more educated and uniform Judiciary in the Town and Village Courts, but we can always make improvements.
As we all know, newly elected Non-Attorney Town and Village Justices must all complete the initial “Taking the Bench” training course put on by OCA.
Then, starting during their first year, all Justices must either complete 12 hours of CLE, or CJE courses annually, to remain on the bench.
For non-attorney Judges, OCA mandates that 6 credit hours of that CJE must be tested and the Judge must receive a passing score in every module to be considered complete. The other remaining 6 credit hours can be made up of the rest of the Core classes, or of elective courses.
At the annual conference every year, NYSMA offers between 21 and 26 ADDITIONAL hours of LIVE, IN-PERSON, elective CLE/CJE credited courses.
The subject matters of the courses put on by NYSMA try to cover areas that are unable to be covered in the 12 hours of Core classes. We offer this variety because no two courts in the state deal with solely identical matters.
For example, a Judge in one community might frequently deal with immigration issues and want more training on that, while a Judge in an adjoining town might deal with more hunting and fishing issues and might want more training on those.
NYSMA’s CLE and CJE courses try to help with that.
Town and Village Justices, both attorney and non-attorney alike, WANT to have the knowledge, information, and tools to do their jobs correctly, and well.
At our recent annual conference, I called upon the Governor, the Legislature, and the Unified Court System, to better fund and support OCA, SPECIFICALLY in their endeavors to further train and support the Justice Courts.
When I was elected in 2007, OCA always offered in-person, and sometimes live, training at multiple locations within my Judicial District. The 4th Judicial district training even provided lunch, and the food was delicious!
Woefully, for the last few years and for various reasons, some beyond their control, OCA has been slowly reducing the options for live, in-person, Core A and Core B training sessions.
Potsdam? Live in-person training?
The annual Association of Towns meeting in New York City? Live in-person training?
For the last 2 years, there has been no OCA sponsored training at the Association of Towns Annual meeting in New York City.
None, not even video training.
This reduction of educational opportunities hurts Town and Village Justices, and it needs to change. Until it does, NYSMA is working with OCA, where we can, and to fill in the gaps.
Thankfully, OCA’s staff have still been working hard to support us, and we greatly appreciate the hard work they put in.
This may seem like I’m raking OCA over the coals, but I am not AND that is not my intention. Often times, it is not their fault. As a State Agency, they answer to the people above them.
Recently, and with the elevation of Judge Murphy, one of our strongest allies, things have been changing for the better.
For example, I was told at our annual conference that barring circumstances beyond their control, OCA has agreed to present live in person Core A and Core B at our conference in Niagara Falls next year.
This upcoming February, OCA has also agreed to work in conjunction with NYSMA to let NYSMA present the Core A and Core B video trainings. Volunteer NYSMA Attorney Judges will be acting as coordinators to make sure Judges can not only receive Continuing Judicial Education credits, but Continuing Legal Education credits.
NYSMA works to help our members, but we can’t do it alone.
We need your help.
As this year’s President of NYSMA, my primary goal will be to get as much of our legislative agenda made into law as we can.
To do that, my focus will be on helping get the word out about our legislative agenda to the County Magistrates Associations, County Boards of Supervisors, Assemblymen and women, State Senators, and even the Governor’s office.
I will also be vocal about the erosion of judicial powers and discretion created by the Bail Reform legislation of 2019, and the need to restore a fully equal and independent judiciary.
Most importantly, I will continue to expound upon why the “Courts Closest to the People” should be overseen by trained judges chosen by the citizens of those towns, not by the Bar Association or politicians in Albany.
During the next year, I am willing and eager to visit any County Association that invites me, or if I can’t make it, a member of our Executive Committee will. I’ll visit any County Board of Supervisors, any Assemblyperson, or any Senator who will take the time out of their schedules to have these important conversations with us.
I encourage each of you to reach out to your co- judges and town boards, judges in the neighboring town, or in your county, or even the next county over, your Assembly person, your state Senator, and the Governor, and spread the word about our need to advocate not only for the survival of our Justice Court System, but for the sanctity of local choices in local judicial elections.
To quote Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
With this in mind, NYSMA opposes the elimination of local courts and the move to District Courts. If your county is undertaking efforts to get rid of Town and Village courts to create District Courts, please contact us, and we will help you however we can.
My final thoughts, before I leave you here tonight, are of the ways we, as Town and Village Judges, help serve our communities by best doing our jobs.
Though times are interesting, we must not let that dishearten us, nor distract us from the needs of justice.
We, as the courts closest to the people, are tasked with protecting the rights of the accused, while fairly, and without bias, adjudicating matters, with freeing the innocent, and with holding the guilty accountable for their actions.
To do this job properly, we must always hang together.