Sunday, September 24, 2006

My Hometown Hits The Front Page of the New York Times

James Estrin/The New York Times
In the Town of Colchester, in the Catskills, court is in the garage.

Broken Bench
In Tiny Courts of New York, Abuses of Law and Power

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.

A yearlong investigation by The New York Times of the life and history of New York State’s town and village courts found a long trail of judicial abuses and errors — and of governmental failure to curb them.

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.

In the 8-page article itself, there is no mention of the Town of Colchester. The audio slide show in the left column repeats this photo, but again no detail about Colchester. I wonder if we will be featured in Parts II or III of the series? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: I am informed by a reliable source (thanks Coach Mom) that the court pictured is in Cooks Falls, one of the hamlets located within the Town of Colchester. That tiny court hears traffic tickets. There is another, larger court facility where Town Justice Theodore Fonda, a former New York City police officer, hears cases.


Anonymous said...

Outraged is my reaction to the inclusion of a picture of a sign outside a town garage in the town of Colchester implying that our Town Justices are either inept or criminal as the article implies. The site of a local court has nothing to do with the ability of the judge who sits in this court. Colchester has two judges, the other being here in Downsville in the Town Hall. The judge in this court is a retired NYC policeman and has such a good reputation with the Count District Attorney that many serious cases are brought here for trial. Unfair to say the least with this pictures inclusion in the article. Mad in Colchester!!!!!!!

truth said...

I agree with your point. I'm holding my fire until Parts II and III of the series are printed.

Anonymous said...

In PA, district justices are elected and then go to justice school/training by the state--how to conduct a trial and issue a judgement by the book.

Obviously those familiar with law (criminal attorney's, ex-troopers and sheriffs, etc.) are the most suitable candidates and catch on fast.

But anyone can run.