From April through October 2007, the Commission conducted the most extensive review of the Justice Courts in New York State history. To provide further expertise for this new phase of work, four town justices (three current and one former) were added to the Commission, including the current and immediate past presidents of the State Magistrates Association (the statewide association of town and village justices), and a non-attorney justice. As part of its fact-finding exercise, groups of Commission members and staff visited nearly 100 Justice Courts in every judicial district, literally crisscrossing the state, from suburban areas to the most rural regions, and dozens of communities in between.
In these visits, Commission members observed proceedings, inspected facilities, and learned about court operations. In town-hall style meetings across the state, they met with hundreds of town and village justices, and dozens of their clerks, to gauge their experience, understand their issues and needs, and listen to their suggestions and critiques of the system. They also met with district attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement representatives, probation officers, town supervisors, village mayors, and private practitioners in virtually all of the counties the Commission visited. In addition, the Commission held four public hearings (in Albany, Ithaca, Rochester and White Plains), where it heard testimony and received submissions from 85 witnesses representing a wide range of interests.
In September 2008, the Commission delivered to Chief Judge Kaye a nearly 300 page report detailing its findings and proposed reforms for the Justice Courts. In this second report, the Commission identified four broad categories of findings: those concerning the organization of the Justice Courts; the qualifications of the Justices; the courts’ facilities and resources; and the role of fines and funding in the courts. In addition, it advanced specific proposals for reform, accompanied by model legislation that could be used to implement these proposals. A summary of these findings and the Commission’s proposals follows.
Findings of the Commission - Findings Regarding the Organization of the Justice Courts
For hundreds of years, Justice Courts have grown organically, on an ad hoc basis, without any plan to distribute courts in a manner that is efficient or designed to fit the needs of New Yorkers. As a result, Justice Courts are sprawled around the state, with many counties supporting a glut of courts, many of which sit in overlapping jurisdictions, and some of which coexist in a single building or in redundant facilities across the street.
There are serious economic and quality-of-justice consequences to this vast array of courts, and the overabundance of Justice Courts creates enormous burdens on taxpayer-funded resources at the local, county and state levels. Localities are forced to bear the costs of maintaining duplicative court facilities, judicial and non-judicial salaries, and security arrangements, while county governments must ensure that there are enough district attorneys, public defenders and probation representatives available to appear in every Justice Court within the county’s jurisdiction. If there were fewer Justice Courts, these burdens could be substantially reduced, and the state could provide more targeted and meaningful support to upgrade the facilities and security of the courts that remain. In short, state assistance to and oversight of the Justice Court system could be achieved more practicably and effectively in a system less fragmented than the current jumble of more than 1,250 courts.
In addition, given the realities of modern travel, this extensive web of local courts is no longer necessary. The Commission found that the vast majority of litigants who are haled into a Justice Court today do not even reside in the locality in which the particular court sits; in fact, in 40% of the cases that the Commission examined, one or more of the litigants resided outside the county in which the Justice Court sat. This is because the dockets of most Justice Courts are filled with Vehicle and Traffic Law violations and criminal charges that often relate to offenses involving a vehicle. As a result, almost by definition, most of the cases heard before the Justice Courts involve individuals who, in some fashion, have access to a vehicle, and for whom there is little practical difference whether a court is located in his or her town, or a few miles away.
At the same time, the Commission concluded that a wholly state-run “District Court” concept – while perhaps ideal in principle – is not politically or financially realistic as a statewide replacement for the Justice Courts. This is because of the significant support that exists among stakeholders across the state for maintaining a system in which local justice is locally administered. In addition, the Justice Courts vary so vastly in their size, their dockets and the populations they serve that it would be impossible to impose a statewide “one size fits all” approach that would satisfy this demand for local control. Finally, creating an array of District Courts that would provide the necessary local coverage would constitute a huge cost to the state. For these reasons, it became clear to the Commission that the demands for local justice are not politically or practically amenable to a wholly state-run system.
Findings Regarding the Qualifications of Justices
Many New Yorkers are surprised to learn that the large majority of the state’s local justices have never been to law school. Recent articles on the topic point out that other professions – from hairstylists to massage therapists – arguably require more training and certification than that which is required to sit as a justice in a town or village court. Many of the Commission members shared this concern, and believe that – in a perfect world – all judges would be attorneys, particularly in the most serious and sensitive categories of cases.
At the same time, as with the topic of District Courts, the Commission’s extensive review led it to the conclusion that effective reform could be achieved without resorting to the politically and pragmatically unrealistic step of requiring all judges to be attorneys. First, the majority of town and village justices are hardworking and experienced, are adequately dispensing justice, and are otherwise performing at an acceptable level. In addition, virtually all of the many non-attorney justices with whom the Commission met praised OCA’s recent initiatives to improve judicial education and training, and are eager for more training and enhanced resources.
Second, it is clear that, in many counties, there is no realistic alternative to the non-attorney justice. Many critics of the current Justice Court system have made the assertion that, if properly motivated, sufficient numbers of attorneys could be persuaded to serve in Justice Court positions in all areas of the state. The Commission, however, concluded that this simply is not feasible as there are hundreds of towns and villages that have few attorneys in residence, and as no reasonable system of inducements would prompt sufficient attorneys to relocate or otherwise assume all of these town and village positions. As a consequence, in many areas of the state, the current Justice Court system, without non-attorney justices, would provide no local justice at all.
Findings Regarding Justice Court Facilities and Resources
In its travels around the state, the Commission visited many courthouses that were completely dilapidated and not fit for the conduct of judicial proceedings. It also visited sleek and modern courthouses that were virtually indistinguishable from those in the state-paid system. But the majority of the Justice Courts fell somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum, and were simply trying to make the best of their imperfect conditions. Some of these courts operate in large facilities but are overwhelmed by huge dockets and lack the funding to handle cases appropriately. More often, they are smaller courts that share space in offices with other town or village agencies, making arrangements as necessary during court hours to provide a modicum of security and order. Most have computers, at least part-time clerks, and access to interpreters and recording capabilities when necessary. In short, the majority of the Justice Courts are operating in facilities that make it difficult to dispense appropriate justice, but which, in many cases, are capable of being improved. The question is how to bring such courts into the modern age.
In addition to visiting many courts that did not have adequate facilities, the Commission encountered a number of courts that were unsafe for a variety of reasons. For example, the Commission visited courts that were virtual firetraps, with no emergency exits and which, on court nights, were routinely filled with litigants, court personnel and spectators well beyond the legal capacity. The Commission also visited a great many courts that were completely inaccessible to the disabled; in some courthouses, cases involving the disabled are heard in hallways or other inappropriate settings. Likewise, with respect to the provision of security officers or detection of weapons, nearly all of the Justice Courts require improvement. Even in the courts with better facilities, security arrangements are often lax or nonexistent, and justices, staff, litigants and the public are exposed to dangers on a daily basis.
Findings Regarding the Role of Fines and Funding
Not surprisingly, the problems that exist with the Justice Courts almost all come down to money. The largest and most effective courts are those that are well-funded, and supported by a revenue stream generated by a robust docket and the associated fines and fees that come with it. At the other extreme are those courts that are woefully underfunded, and that may be subject to inappropriate pressure to produce results that enhance municipal coffers. The financial backdrop is a statewide regime that apportions fines and fees in complex ways among state, county and local governments, a regime that can be subject to manipulation, since the outcome reached in a particular case can directly determine whether the resulting fine goes to the state or the municipality.
Being creatures of their municipal governments, the Justice Courts get little by way of outside financial support, the main exception being a system of relatively modest legislative grants that are available through OCA. Any consideration of reform must thus address the question of whether the state should provide more financial support to these courts, especially if the goal is to encourage the Justice Courts on a statewide basis to be more streamlined and efficient.
Proposals of the Commission - Minimum Standards
The Commission concluded that the first step in improving the quality of justice that is delivered in the Justice Courts is to establish a set of standards – for court facilities, resources, security and other requirements – that would be enforced statewide, as a means to ensure that all courts are safe and fit for judicial proceedings. In establishing such standards, the goal would not be to “gold plate” all courts, and the standards would have to be flexible and realistic enough to reflect local differences and needs, and to avoid an unintended diminution in the access to justice, particularly in rural areas. But the Commission concluded that a statewide effort can and should be undertaken, as the current approach of allowing courts to operate on an ad hoc basis, without adequate resources or due regard for broader issues of efficiencies, economies and the quality of justice, is unacceptable.
County-Based Panels to Bring About Combinations and Reform
To address the overlap and inefficiencies that currently exist among the Justice Courts; to achieve the minimum standards discussed above; and to improve the quality of the courts and the justice they dispense, the Commission concluded that the number of Justice Courts must be reduced through a process of combination and reform. There is simply no way, logistically or financially, that needed improvements – in areas such as facilities, accessibility, security, technology, training of justices and support staff, money-handling and implementation of specialized court programs – can be effectively accomplished for all of the 1,250-plus existing courts around the state. Moreover, given the proximity of many of the courts to one another, there is no need for all of these courts to remain in existence in order for justice to be provided on a local basis.
The process of deciding which courts to combine would require a significant degree of collaboration among the Justice Courts and their constituencies, and this process cannot take place solely at the municipal level. Still, a wholly top-down, state-run approach is not feasible either. Determinations of where combinations are necessary cannot be made in the abstract, and a close review and understanding of each individual county and community would be necessary before effective recommendations can be made.
To this end, the Commission proposed the creation of review panels in each county, panels that would be directed by the State Legislature to assess which courts meet (or can be improved sufficiently to meet) the new minimum standards, and that would develop plans for combining courts on a county-by-county basis. In developing these plans, the panels would be required to follow statutory guidelines which would incorporate, not only the concept of minimum standards described above, but geographic, demographic and docket-related considerations of where courts are most needed; the condition of court facilities and security arrangements; the distance that litigants and others must travel to gain access to a court facility; the proximity of courts to detention facilities; the availability of justices to conduct arraignments; and other similar issues. These panels would be comprised of representatives from relevant constituencies, including town, village and county governments, Justice Courts, and the local bar. The work of the panels would be facilitated by OCA, which would help guide and coordinate the panel reviews within each judicial district, to promote consistency around the state.
The Commission also suggested that such panels be provided with a presumed range of the court combinations that are to be achieved on a county-by-county basis. The purpose of these recommended ranges would be to ensure the fairness, uniformity and effectiveness of the consolidation program across the state. Each of the panels would be given a set period of time to perform its work, after which the recommendations would have the force of law (unless a county legislature enacts a substitute plan, as discussed herein). The panels would address only the combination of courts, and would not be permitted to make changes to the number of judgeships, which is a decision best left to the localities after the consolidation analysis is complete. Nor would this process involve any changes to the manner in which justices are selected. The panels would thereafter be disbanded, and the further monitoring and enforcement of standards in the Justice Courts would, as noted above, become the responsibility of OCA.
Safeguarding Due Process Rights and Improving the Quality of the Justice Court Bench
The Commission’s report also set forth specific recommendations to improve further the education, training and certification of justices. With respect to the role of non-attorney justices – and after extensive debate about the possible proposals that might address these recurring concerns – the Commission concluded that the simplest and most effective solution is to provide all defendants who appear before a non-attorney justice in a misdemeanor criminal case with an “opt-out” right to have his or her case heard by an attorney judge, at a point after arraignment but before a trial is scheduled or before substantive motions are made. The Commission believed that such an “opt-out” right should address any substantive or due process concerns, without entirely dismantling a system that has been in place for hundreds of years.
Reforming the Funding Process to Upgrade and Achieve Efficiencies in the Justice Courts
Finally, achieving the necessary Justice Court reforms would require the adoption of new funding strategies, even in areas where combinations result in a reduced number of courts. To this end, the Commission’s report identified a number of funding steps to be considered that would enhance and rationalize the existing mechanisms by which the courts are funded, at the state and local levels. These include the creation of a state-funded Aid to Localities program so that the state can provide direct financial support to the Justice Courts, as well as an expansion of the Justice Court Assistance Program, an application-based grant program administered by OCA that has had a significant impact already in improving the condition of many Justice Courts.
In addition, the report included ideas for reforming Justice Court fine and fee collection procedures and expanding the City, Town and Village Resource Center, which provides confidential guidance to justices on a broad array of substantive, procedural, case management and administrative issues.