Tuesday's Election In Columbia County
Disclaimer: The author has not endorsed and will not endorse any candidate for any position in the November, 2011 election. This essay is directed entirely at steps voters may wish to take to cast intelligent, responsible votes in November's DA and judicial contests. This essay is updated from an April, 2011 essay on the same topic.
"Every nation that has ended in tyranny has come to that end by way of good order. It certainly does not follow from this that peoples should scorn public peace, but neither should they be satisfied with that and nothing more. A nation that asks nothing of government but the maintenance of order is already a slave in the depths of its heart; it is a slave of its well-being, ready for the man who will put it in chains."
— Alexis de Tocqueville
Good order. Which brings me ever so briefly to Tuesday's election in Columbia County, New York. This is an off-off year election. There are no national or statewide races. There are only four county-wide races. There are no coat tails. And, to nobody’s surprise, there may be very little voter interest. The two most important countywide races are for County Judge and for District Attorney. The others are for coroner and treasurer. In other words, the race, if it’s about anything other than personality and party political power, which is doubtful, is about good order. It remains to be seen whether it is about more than that.
Let’s face it, the electorate doesn’t really know much about either job. If the voter’s house hasn’t been burglarized, or s/he hasn’t been arrested for DWI, or her kids aren’t hauled in for smoking pot, the voter has no direct experience of what the District Attorney does and does not do. And since most people want nothing at all to do with being victims of crimes, somebody who is aggressively against crime— isn’t everybody?— seems to be a good enough candidate to maintain good order. There’s more, but if the campaigns have illuminated these additional points I may have missed it.
The County Court job is far more opaque. There are very few people who know what goes on in Columbia County’s County Court. Most of them are participants. Virtually nobody shows up at the County Courthouse just to watch and find out what is going on, to observe the process, and how it is carried out. The stories in the newspaper don’t help educate about this. They discuss the outcomes of criminal cases, which are a relatively small part of the Court’s business, and they don’t talk about Family Court. Ever. That’s odd, because the overwhelming majority of the County Court’s business is Family Court. An unscientific estimate: 2/3’s or more of the Court’s business is Family Court.
The odds are that most voters know absolutely nothing about Family Court. The odds are that they have never been there, know no one who has been there, have no friends who have been there, and might not even know what is supposed to go on there. That’s because although Family Court is the county’s busiest Court, most of the litigants there are not “frequent voters.”
Who are the litigants in Family Court? They are almost entirely the County’s poorest residents on one side and the Department of Social Services on the other. Or there are cases between the poorest residents on both sides. It is extremely unusual for wealthy and middle class litigants to end up in Family Court. Why is that? Because they and their lawyers do everything humanly possible to avoid it. At all cost. And because “good order” means different things in different places, the Department of Social Services tends to ignore the questionable parenting of Columbia County’s most comfortable citizens.
If you’re solidly middle class and you are having a bad day and you had too much to drink before dinner and you throw a plate of spaghetti on the floor and curse and yell and scream and have a meltdown with your children present, the chances that you will ever be charged by DSS with neglect or abuse in Family Court are extremely remote. Nobody will call the cops or Child Protective Services. More likely, you’ll do a mandatory 8-count in a neutral corner, walk around the block, apologize profusely, and try again the next day to do better. In other words, nothing will happen to you. Commit this same conduct when you are poor, and it is far more likely that the event will be reported to some agency: 911, the cops, DSS, Social Services. The report of the event will be your engraved invitation to a Family Court experience that may last years.
In Family Court it is likely that your every facet will be investigated. These investigations are legion. You will eventually be told to participate in “services.” Parenting classes, anger management, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment. The list is as extensive as its results are undocumented. And you may end up under the supervision of DSS and the Family Court for years, if not for all eternity, and you may end up losing your children to Foster Care or have your parental rights terminated if you don’t comply. In other words, this is serious business for you and your family. If you are poor, all of this is about good order, though it is more often couched in terms of protecting children from bad parenting.
Tuesday's election is about many things, but chief among them is who will be the Family Court judge who will impose good order on the County’s poorest families. And how, one wonders, do political leaders who themselves have never been to Family Court and don’t know the first thing about it, decide whether someone is or is not a good candidate for this important and powerful position? Short answer: they have no real clue about the job, so they decide this the same way they decide other questions. They ask the circular question: who will be a good candidate, meaning who can get votes. Nothing else really matters to them.
This means that the voter cannot really rely on the wisdom of the nominations. They might be good; they might not. Nor can the voter rely on the campaigns. Judicial campaigns have rules that prevent the most basic confrontations between candidates on issues. The campaigns are designed to promote clichés about efficiency and justice and fairness and respect.
There is a better idea for voters. An idea better than blindly accepting a candidate because he or she is on your favorite political party's line. It’s about education. Before casting a ballot for County Court Judge in November, the voter would be well advised to take just a couple of hours off, sit in the gallery and watch Family Court churn out its cases some afternoon. Observe the judges (none are running for re-election in November), observe the litigants, listen to the lawyers. See for yourself what’s at stake in these horrendous cases. Talk to litigants in the hall about their experiences. Talk to the lawyers too. Once you’ve seen this you’ll be far more equipped to decide which candidate is best suited to the position.
Is it too late for that now? Probably. The next best idea: talk to people who are engaged in the process: lawyers, social workers, litigants, those who provide services. Ask them about their experiences.
Without that most minimal investigation, your vote is just buying a pig in a poke. And as deTocqueville argued, shouldn’t voters really be asking for more than just good order? Shouldn’t voters be asking for understanding, wisdom, compassion, restraint, and intelligence? In fact, shouldn’t voters be asking that the candidates have human qualities that bend toward justice? And as important, shouldn't voters conduct their own investigations so that they are trying actually to determine which candidate best fulfills the requirements of this very difficult job?