Friday, June 30, 2017

More accountability needed for rural judges without law degrees

It's a little-known fact that around 2,000 judges in mostly-rural New York are presiding without a law degree or any legal training whatsoever.

Joe Sexton of ProPublica surveys the recent repercussions of this practice in a new piece prompted by the recent resignation of Justice Gary M. Poole of the Rose Town Court in Wayne County. Poole, who is not an attorney, agreed to resign effective July 1 and never again seek judicial appointment after the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct began investigating claims that he screamed at and threatened a former girlfriend and her new boyfriend in court.

In 2006, state officials promised reform after The New York Times published a series condemning the practice of allowing non-attorneys to preside as judges.

"The examination found overwhelming evidence that decade after decade and up to this day, people have often been denied fundamental legal rights," writes William Glaberson of The Times. "Defendants have been jailed illegally. Others have been subjected to racial and sexual bigotry so explicit it seems to come from some other place and time. People have been denied the right to a trial, an impartial judge and the presumption of innocence."

This week, in reviewing recent commission reports, Sexton reports that non-attorney judges are still being frequently disciplined for unprofessional conduct. One justice, for instance, was ordered to be removed from office in May after trying to have his daughter's traffic ticket removed, as well as trying to influence the decisions of the judge who was handling appeals of his decisions.

The practice of appointing non-attorney judges arose from the high cost to small communities of hiring qualified judges and lawyers, as well as frequent rural anti-lawyer sentiment, reports Glaberson, noting also that non-attorney judges tend to be powerful players in local politics.

To reduce misconduct and increase accountability, the Commission has recommended several reforms. "The court system has supplied every town and village court with laptops that have audio capability," commission administrator Robert Tembeckjian writes to ProPublica. "And a rule of the Chief Administrative Judge requires all proceedings to be recorded and maintained, and more extensive ethics training for judges."

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