Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

Debate on Town Judges Questions Need for Degree


Bridge and Birds Debate on Town Judges Questions Need for Degree

By John Caher
Albany Bureau Chief
New York Law Journal
ALBANY - (January 30th 2007)

The New York State Bar Association locked horns with local judges yesterday over whether a law degree should be required of town and village magistrates.

Bar leaders, perhaps predictably, say it is time for a 300-year tradition of non-lawyer judges to come to an end. And the magistrates, perhaps just as predictably since nearly three-fourths of their 2,000 members are not lawyers, argue that a law degree is neither a necessary pedigree nor a guarantee of judicial competence.

The hearing yesterday initiated by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John A. DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, was prompted by a New York Times exposé last year suggesting that the town and village justice system is at best haphazard and at worst unjust. Part of the inquiry yesterday dealt with the qualifications and training of the justices, who now handle 2 million cases an year and take in $200 million in fines and fees.

Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman have already embraced an "action plan" that would increase state court system oversight of the local courts and expand the non-lawyer basic training program from one week to seven.

But some advocates, including Mark H. Alcott of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, president of the state bar, argue that it is "no longer acceptable" for non-lawyers to hold judicial office.

"My view is lawyers make the best judges," Mr. Alcott told the Judiciary Committee. "When it comes to someone applying the law, we need someone trained in the law. To me, that is a fairly evident proposition."

But to Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Bronx, that is an "elitist" proposition. She questioned whether the lack of legal training is really an issue. Mr. Alcott insists it is.

"There is nothing elitist about saying someone applying the law and enforcing the law should be schooled in the law," Mr. Alcott said. "What good does it do you to have a lawyer represent you if you have a judge who doesn't understand the law?"

Mr. DeFrancisco and Senator George H. Winner Jr., R-Elmira, questioned the practicality of limiting town and village judgeships to attorneys. Mr. DeFrancisco noted that some attorneys are reluctant to hold those often low-paying posts because they are then barred from practicing in another town or village court in their county, a severe restriction in some areas. And Mr. Winner observed that there are some communities where there are no lawyers.

"We are not all from Appalachia, and we are not all woodchucks, but there are areas where there are no attorneys," Mr. Winner said.

Rockland County District Attorney Michael E. Bongiorno said he does "not accept the argument that there is a lack of attorneys who want to be judges in some communities." He said any logistical problem of that nature could be solved by simply permitting attorneys from surrounding communities to serve as town and village justices.

"I do not believe an additional week or several weeks of training for non-lawyers is sufficient to educate a non-lawyer as to the complexities of criminal law and procedure," Mr. Bongiorno told the committee. "If I were a defendant, I would not want my future in the hands of a judge who was not well-versed in the law."

Common Sense

But the judges, including those who are lawyers, said the diverse experience and common sense that the best magistrates bring to their courts more than makes up for any deficiency in formal legal training.

"We are not country bumpkins," said Stuyvesant Town Justice Carrie A. O'Hare, a doctoral candidate in Columbia County. "Training to be a lawyer is not necessarily training to be an effective justice at the town and village court level. Town and village justices require the capacity to research the law, but they require much more that is not systematically addressed in a law school education: skills in communicating with people without legal backgrounds, management skills and organizational knowledge."

Tuckahoe Village Justice David O. Fuller Jr., a Harvard Law School graduate and former Manhattan assistant district attorney, said non-lawyers serve the system well.

"Those in business, education and formerly in state positions, among many others, have been able, with adequate training, to render well-informed decisions to the public," Justice Fuller said. "They bring specialized experience with transportation, parks and recreation, conservation and many other matters peculiar to certain areas of the state that members of the bar may not have."

Misconduct Complaints

The New York Times series, however, revealed that under-educated and untrained judges often render decisions devoid of due process. Town and village justices account for more than 70 percent of the disciplinary sanctions imposed by the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Commission Administrator and Counsel Robert H. Tembeckjian said that "complaints of misconduct against town and village justices are more likely to have merit, warrant investigation and result in punishment than complaints against judges of higher courts." However, he also said that non-lawyer judges are no more likely to incur the wrath of the commission than those who are admitted to the bar.

Van Buren Town Justice Edward G. Van Der Water, vice president of the New York State Magistrates Association, said Commission on Judicial Conduct statistics show two things: First, the disciplinary system works and, second, that there is no reason to require law degrees.

"About half the judges in the state system have a law degree and half do not," said Justice Van Der Water, a former deputy police chief in Syracuse. "In the last eight years the determination rate, including removals from office, average out almost exactly the same."

Judge Lippman said the court system's current focus is on working within the existing framework to improve the town and village courts. He said that converting to an all-lawyer town justice system is not immediately a "viable option." But he also said that the "hands-off approach that says each locality runs their court in any fashion they think appropriate" must and will end.

"However qualified and dedicated the overwhelming majority of local judges and staff may be, 1,277 different courts cannot reliably deliver cost-effective, high-quality justice without a more cohesive systemic approach," Judge Lippman said.

Budget Request

The judiciary, in its budget request now before the governor, asks for $10 million to upgrade the local courts, provide them with equipment to ensure a record is made of all proceedings, provide additional training to justices and integrate the courts more fully into the state system.

"It should be noted here that the vast majority of non-lawyer justices serve ably and responsibly," Judge Lippman said. "They do so in areas of the state where there are not enough lawyers willing or available to preside in local courts. Accordingly, our obligation is to train these individuals to the very best of our ability."

He said that in addition to expanding the training program for non-lawyer judges to seven weeks from one, the Office of Court Administration is drafting what will be "by far . . . our most rigorous training program ever."

(- John Caher can be reached at )

Re: Justice and Justices
By Anthony Henry Smith

Is every lawyer qualified to be a justice?

Wisdom consists of the ability to utilize knowledge within a context of values.
Law can be applied by a trained craftsperson to produce solutions that are legal, but are not necessarily "Just" or fair. Fairness can only be realized through Wisdom.

Wisdom is not a mantel to be bestowed by lofty titles or degrees. Wisdom occurs at the confluence of the love of learning and nobility of spirit. These qualities are the hallmarks of a true leader and a worthy judge.

Properly framed the question is this:

How many degree holders, lawyers included, are capable of rising above the level of crafting merely legal solutions? How many by virtue of their love of learning and nobility of spirit are capable of attaining the level of fairness known as Justice and are therefore qualified to be installed as justices?

One need look no further than our own federal government to realize the finest education, absent values, is not evidence of Wisdom.

(-Anthony Henry Smith can be reached at )

Issues We're Working OnAbout UsHighlightsPress RoomContact Us

Soldiers Fountain

Our site map is divided into two pages. Please visit our Links Page for more information on organizations and community activities in the Hudson Valley, and our Archives page for information regarding issues and activities previously highlighted on the FRCH website.