Enough. A Plea To Abolish New York's Town Courts
Despite a decades long argument that government should be smaller and more efficient, and despite the use of that argument to cut essential aid for poor people, the sick, students, the elderly, the wasteful government boondoggles persist, and it’s as if they were invisible, or at the very least immune from serious scrutiny. There are doubtless boxcars full of these, but high on the list of wasteful, inefficient, unnecessary spending in New York are the town and village courts.
It’s not a pretty picture. New York’s town and village court system is a huge and incredibly expensive dinosaur. The scope and cost of the system and the amount of duplication in it reveal huge amounts of waste and unnecessary spending. And in general the quality of justice this stegosaurus provides is questionable. There are ample reasons to abolish these courts statewide. But is there the will to do so and to replace these courts with district courts? Or are they to be preserved, a living natural history museum of creatures that deserve to be extinct?
What do all these little courts do? In addition to the many traffic tickets that provide so much money to the towns and the state, they have jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes and initial jurisdiction (bail, felony hearings) of felony cases. They also handle small claims and evictions and other small civil cases. That means that a town court judge— town court judges do not need to be lawyers and they do not need to be fully trained in a law school-- has the power to remand someone accused of a crime to jail on high bail, and the power, if there is a conviction, to sentence someone to jail for up to a year. The town court judge is also supposed to decide difficult and important procedural and even Constitutional questions that arise in misdemeanor criminal cases and even more arcane, to conduct bench and jury trials in these cases. These judges are required to instruct the juries on the law.
Let’s look at how this system operates in Columbia County. Because Columbia is a small county and because the number of cases is relatively small, each of these courts meets in the town or village hall one or more times per month. Naturally, most of the caseload involves traffic tickets. But initial appearances and bail determinations in misdemeanor and serious felony cases are also decided.
There are 1,281 town and village courts in New York State. Each of these has its own clerk’s office and the expenses of operating it. There are 2,154 town and village judgeships. Each of these positions is paid a salary and in many cases various kinds of fringe benefits, including health insurance and retirement. There is no requirement that the judges of these courts be lawyers. So, statewide approximately 68 percent of the judges are non-lawyers. Columbia County’s town court judges fit this profile. And unlike all other New York courts, which are state-funded, these courts are funded by the local government in which they are situated. Statewide operating this many small courts is very, very expensive.
Take Columbia County as an example. In Columbia County alone there are 21 town and village courts (Valatie recently closed its court). According to the 2010 Columbia County budget, the cost of salaries, capital improvements, and non-salary costs of the town and courts in 2010 was $838,569. That figure does not include any of the fixed costs of operating 21 different courtrooms and the cost of equipping 21 different clerk’s offices with the very same equipment and the costs of postage and mailing and the rest of running an office. It doesn’t include the cost of training judges and recording proceedings and storage of documents. It should be clear that the amount spent on these courts is far more than it would take to operate a district court (or even two) to handle all of the current town and village court matters. Put another way, abolishing these courts would save money. That much cannot be rationally disputed. And, presumably if judges in district court were lawyers, the quality of decisions might be improved. Government would be smaller and more efficient. Statewide the savings would come to millions and millions of dollars. But, isn’t it strange? Nobody at all is clamoring to shrink these courts and to replace them with centralized District Courts, which parenthetically would be paid for by the state with funds collected across the state.
For decades complaints about the town and village courts have been legion. The complaints are in two categories: analytical and anecdotal. A number of organizations in New York have investigated the system and concluded that the town court system should be dissolved. Almost forty years ago the Dominick Commission recommended replacement with district courts. Even then, the Commission felt that the quality of the justice system was not best served by part-time and non-lawyer judges, and it noted that the mandatory training town court judges must receive might not “adequately prepare a justice to protect the rights of individuals” and that having part-time work outside of the court “might present conflicting demands on the judge’s time and by implication, result in a less than zealous or rigorous attention to his judicial responsibilities.” Since then, the State Commission of Investigation, the League of Women Voters, the Institute for Judicial Administration, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the New York State Defender’s Association, and others have all called for abolition of these courts. All to no avail.
Abolition has been resisted by the Conference of Mayors, and to no one’s surprise, by the New York State Association of Magistrates, an organization made up of town and village court judges.
And anecdotal complaints about the system abound. These served as the basis for an award winning, 2006 series of four articles, “Broken Bench", by William Glaberson in the New York Times detailing numerous abuses in the system. These articles caused a brief buzz. And then the deafening silence resumed. Inattention to these broken courts continued with shrugs and further avoidance of the topic. At the time the State’s financial crisis had not yet bloomed. The tendered reasons for abolition had to do mostly with the quality of justice dispensed, not with the outrageous and unnecessary costs of the sytstem. It should also be noted in passing that the Commission on Judicial Conduct spends most of its time and money investigating and disciplining the non-lawyer town and village judges.
There are obvious reasons why these town courts persist. Not necessarily in order of importance, these reasons include that the local political parties like having additional paid positions for which election is possible, the judges enjoy their service to the community, some may also enjoy their power or being called “Your Honor.” Moreover, and probably most important, as with other courts, most voters have no idea what the town court does. They think that the town has to have one just as the town has to have a clerk. When these voters get traffic tickets, they tend to mail them in as “guilty”. And they may have no reason ever to be in the town court unless they or their children get arrested or get tickets. In other words, the town courts’ operations are hardly ever observed, let alone scrutinized by the people footing the bill for them. It's assumed that these courts are mandatory, a cost of having a town. A cost of having a government. But they're not.
Another reason why these courts persist may be the thought that it will take an act of the state legislature to be rid of them. And that that will be a time consuming, expensive ordeal. But that is not so. It’s easier than that. Since 1961, under Article 6, §16 of the New York Constitution, New York’s local jurisdictions have had the authority to replace town courts by establishing a unified district court with general trial jurisdiction and full-time judges. This can be done for the entire county or for one or more contiguous cities or towns in the county. In order to establish a district court system, the majority of the electorate in each town or village involved must vote for approval in a general election. In other words, towns that want to keep their town courts can do so unless a majority of the town’s voters want the savings and improvements a district court system will provide.
Can we expect to see such a referendum in Columbia County to abolish all the town and village courts and to replace them with a district court? I have no idea. But it should be obvious that if Columbia County is at all interested in saving taxpayers’ funds, in shrinking the size of unnecessary government, in providing more efficient, more just services, there is little question that this unnecessary and inefficient should be halted and that these courts should be abolished.