ITHACA, N.Y. — During a Q&A Wednesday evening, experts weighed in on the merits of reforming or outright eliminating town and village courts in Tompkins County in favor of creating a district court system.

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The experts shared anecdotes about town or village judges, despite training, who were unable to differentiate certain parts of legal proceedings or laws during a case.

The Municipal Courts Task Force — an organization comprised of local judges, town supervisors, attorneys and District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson — gathered the speakers as part of an informational session about court reform in the county.

Task force chair Ray Schlather said the task force started in May and for the next year, will hear from town justices, law enforcement, probation officers, clerks and other people affiliated with the court system about possible reform.

He said the task force plans to eventually propose a plan to state legislatures about potential changes and improvements to the courts. The process could take years to enact.

Wednesday’s meeting featured Tompkins County Judge John Rowley; Jonathan Graddis, director of the New York state public defenders association; and Kevin Kelly, an attorney from the non-profit organization LawNY.

The following is a list of some topics addressed during the Q&A session:

Judges with no law degree

“I pride myself on the education I received at law school and it is simply wrong to continue a system where non-lawyers have this level of accountability,” Rowley said. “The bottom line is I think the town and village courts vary in their quality from probably okay to excellent.”

Rowley said dissolving town and village courts and creating instead a district court — which would theoretically consolidate Tompkins County cases into a centralized and streamlined court system — would give people a better opportunity to be properly represented in legal matters.

“I think over all it’s simply unfair and inappropriate to have a non-lawyer judge preside over any criminal proceeding,” Rowley said.

Graddis agreed that judges without law degrees shouldn’t oversee criminal matters, for many of the same reasons Rowley mentioned.

He said Tompkins County residents may have the unique mindset to implement a major change in its judicial system.

“I think of you as an avant-garde jurisdiction,” Graddis said.

He recommended however, that in addition to creating a district court, it might still be possible to consider keeping smaller courts operating.

He said non-lawyer judges can handle smaller offenses with restorative justice, which encourages mediation between disputing parties.

Not only would keeping judges at the local level help alleviate the number of less severe cases in a district court, he said, but it would allow the areas to keep an aspect of representative identities they value.

Kelly,  who stressed that LawNY cannot endorse a particular action because of the organization’s non-profit status, conceded that there are some problematic anecdotal experiences among he and colleagues that would be solved with a district court system.

“Certainly it would be a lot easier for us to handle more cases if we were in a consolidated system,” he said.

Limited court access

Kelly went on to say that one major problem he and other attorneys face at town and village court is their limited court hours.

For instance, he said one court’s hours are Monday from  2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

He said clients referred to him after Wednesday are at a disadvantage for being properly represented.

“I might be able to get a hold of someone that Monday before court, but how am I supposed to prepare for a hearing when I can’t get the papers?,” he asked.

He said another option for solving the issue of limited court access – aside from a unified, consistent district court system — is the digitization of court records.

Loss of tradition?

District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson was among a few task force members who questioned whether eliminating town and village courts would put a stopper on some longstanding New York customs.

“It is difficult to think about making a change that flies in the face of a lot of state tradition but seems like such a common sense choice to make. So do any of you see something in the justice court system as it exists with non-lawyer judges that could be lost or sacrificed if we were to move away toward a consolidated system or the kind of system that requires only lawyer judges?” Wilkinson asked.

Kelly said that one of the benefits of town and village courts is his client’s accessibility to the courthouse. He represents clients who surpass minimum federal requirements for living in poverty and often do not have many transportation options.

He said, however, accessibility doesn’t matter as much if his clients don’t have confidence that they will go to court and have a fair, just trial.

Rowley and Graddis both agreed that giving people an opportunity to have consistent legal representation trumps upholding traditions.

Rowley said, “Over time, what would be lost will be forgotten.”

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.