Unregulated “Courts”

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Today the NYT is featuring an article entitled “In Tiny Courts of New York, Abuses of Law and Power.” Here are the opening paragraphs:

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.

These are New York’s town and village courts, or justice courts, as the 1,250 of them are widely known. In the public imagination, they are quaint holdovers from a bygone era, handling nothing weightier than traffic tickets and small claims. They get a roll of the eyes from lawyers who amuse one another with tales of incompetent small-town justices.

A woman in Malone, N.Y., was not amused. A mother of four, she went to court in that North Country village seeking an order of protection against her husband, who the police said had choked her, kicked her in the stomach and threatened to kill her. The justice, Donald R. Roberts, a former state trooper with a high school diploma, not only refused, according to state officials, but later told the court clerk,”Every woman needs a good pounding every now and then.”

Here is an excerpt from a later portion of the article:

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?”

Across the Hudson, Joseph Cerbone, the Mount Kisco justice with the miniature violin, persuaded a young woman to drop her abuse case against the son of a couple he had done legal work for. She told the commission that while she did not believe the justice’s claim that the son was”a decent guy”who had”made a mistake,”she had no choice.

I can tell you from direct experience that the same things happen in other states as well. I profoundly hope that this issue gets a lot of public interest and policy-maker traction as a result of this NYT coverage. It’s a story that needs to be told, and an issue that desperately needs to be addressed.

–Ann Bartow

UPDATE: Part 2 of the NYT series is available here, and I have to give the Paper Of Record a lot of credit for this.

Part 3 is accessible here.

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0 Responses to Unregulated “Courts”

  1. Patrick Seamus says:

    As the cliches: ‘just when you’ve thought you’ve heard it all,’ and, ‘life is [indeed] stranger than fiction’ (at my age these ring rather loudly). I’ve never been back east (well, east of the Mississippi River) and had not heard of such courts before. What are the other states with such courts? This story does seem to be getting some attention in the blogosphere, so perhaps it will receive the belated requisite attention and ‘policy-maker traction.’

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