Nearly three-quarters of the judges in New York State’s 1,250 town and village courts are not lawyers, and many – truck drivers, sewer workers, or laborers – have little grasp of the most basic legal principles, says the New York Times in a report on a yearlong investigation of the courts. Some never got through high school, and at least one went no further than grade school. The courts have sent defendants jail without a guilty plea or a trial and removed them 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.
It is impossible to say just how many of the village court judges are ill-informed or abusive. Officially a part of the state court system, yet financed by the towns and villages, the justice courts are unsupervised by either. State court officials know little about the justices, and cannot say how many cases they handle or how many are appealed. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct is not equipped to police their vast numbers fully. The Times investigation found “overwhelming evidence that decade after decade and up to this day, people have often been denied fundamental legal rights. 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.”