“second class justice” in ny’s justice courts


The New York Times started a three-part series called Broken Bench, today, about the “second class system of justice” afforded by the justice courts of New York State.  “In Tiny Courts of N.Y., Abuses of  Law and Power,” Sept. 25, 2006).  [via Law Librarian Blog] There are 1250 justice courts in towns and villages across the State.   Although many in the public see the justice courts as “quaint holdovers from a bygone era, handling nothing weightier than traffic tickets and small claims” a year-long NYT investigation “found overwhelming evidence that decade after decade and up to this day, people have often been denied fundamental legal rights” the those courts.

According to the Times and observers who have complained about the justice courts for over a century, the biggest problem is the lack of training of the justices (most of whom are not lawyers, and the State “demands more schooling for licensed manicurists and hair stylists.”) and the lack of effective administrative oversight.   According to the article, 30 states still have similar low-tier court systems.  The series should be well-worth following.  [click for Part 2 “You Learn by Mistakes” (Sept. 26, 2006), which focuses on Justice William J. Gori in Malone, NY; and Part 3,  “How a Reviled Court System Has Outlasted Critics” (Sept. 27, 2006)]

hangman  The vast majority of the cases heard before the town and village courts are civil in nature — many involve traffic violations or small claims.   Most litigants surely appear pro se before these under-trained justices, in courts that have no requirement for transcripts or recording.    At the State’s official justice court website, the New York’s deputy chief administrative judge, Hon. Jan H. Plumadore, notes the vital role of justice courts:

“Many New Yorkers will have their first and only court experience in a town or village court. The justices who preside in these courts are instrumental in resolving community disputes involving vehicle and traffic matters, small claims, evictions, civil matters and criminal offenses.”

It’s good to see that the State has put resources into a website “designed to assist town and village justices and court clerks in fulfilling their judicial responsibilities by providing legal research resources, training information and links to other useful websites.”   However, considering the plight of many pro se litigants appearing in justice courts, it’s a bit disheartening to see that “Future enhancements will provide guidance to the general public as well.”   Now is not too soon. [Other sites of interest: The State Comptroller’s Justice Court website; and NYS Magistrates Association]

New Yorkers who find themselves in a justice court on small claims matters might — if the justice is interested in relevant law and procedure — find useful assistance in the 24-page Guide to Small Claims in the NYS City, Town and Village Courts.

1 Comment

  1. shlep: the Self-Help Law ExPress » Blog Archive » turkey leftovers

    November 24, 2006 @ 2:34 pm


    […] b)  The hordes of pro se litigants who appear in the Justice Courts of the State of New York, got good news this week.  Surely spurred on by the New York Times three-part series in September, describing the oft-malfunctioning system of small town and village courts (see our prior post), the NYS Chief Judge, Judith S. Kaye, announced a set of reforms that include “plans to increase training for the justices, to improve their supervision and to better monitor whether they are protecting basic legal principles like the constitutional right to a lawyer” and the requirement “for the first time to keep a word-for-word record of their proceedings, like other courts in the state.” (New York Times, “Justice Courts for Small New York Towns to be Overhauled,” Nov. 22, 2006)  Other major issues were not addressed in the proposals, because they would need legislative changes and face considerable political opposition from local politicians. “Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that while the reforms suggested by Judge Kaye were welcome, ‘these are Band-Aids on a system that needs serious systemic reform’.” […]

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