ITHACA, N.Y. — Six Tompkins County lawyers cited sexism, racism and illegal activities happening in town and village courts as reasons why they support eliminating town and village courts in favor or creating a centralized district court.

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Attorney Kelly Damm said, “This is not an attack on any specific justice court. This is just the way that they are run and what goes on on a daily basis in justice courts across the state. There is rampant sexism.”

She also gave an anecdote about overhearing a judge, as recently as two years ago, referring to a defendant as “boy.”

“I knew he was talking to a young black man before I looked and that is in fact who he was talking to,” she said.

Other attorneys nodded their heads in agreement as Damm told several anecdotes about her experiences in justice courts throughout the county.

The panel was gathered as part of a Q&A with the Municipal Courts Task Force — an organization comprised of local judges, town supervisors, attorneys and District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson — who are exploring court reform options in the county.

Seven other concerns addressed by lawyers were:

  1. Limited court hours that make it difficult for lawyers to access paperwork and for clients to tend to court obligations. Lawyers said justice courts are often open a few hours for one day a week.
  2. Because many courts are only open one night a week, lawyers cannot often be at all the courts necessary throughout the county. This, lawyers said, leads to the dragging out of cases regardless of the severity of the alleged crime. Damm said the situation creates a “debtor’s prison” for people who cannot afford bail.
  3. Inadequate/dangerous facilities for legal proceedings, including no space for lawyers to have private conferences with clients or inmate holding cells. Attorney Margaret McCarthy said she was once in a court during the winter with no heat and in an area where toxic fumes seeped into the building.
  4. Limited or no security, such as court officers, consistent police presence or metal detectors.
  5.  Refusal by some courts to offer partial payments for fines, leading to people having their driver’s licence revoked or warrants issued for arrest. McCarthy said she’s been expected by courts to collect money from defendants and arrange payments on behalf of courts.
  6. No or limited victim advocates available in cases that involve issues such as domestic violence or mental health.
  7. Illegal execution of the law, such as demanding a defendant not return to a town or village, which McCarthy said she’s also experienced.

The debate about non-lawyer judges’ authority and application of the law has been an ongoing concern during public informational sessions the task force has arranged.

Related: Should town, village courts be eliminated in Tompkins?

Attorney Steven Shiffrin, who is also a professor of law emeritus at Cornell Law School, said other concerns — such as non-lawyer judges’ common sense application of law — went as far as to deny defendants “court statutory or constitutional liberties.”

When task force chair Ray Schlather asked lawyers if there is any way to solve the problems at town and village courts without creating a district court, some lawyers mentioned ideas such as centralized booking, increased court clerk hours and digitized court records.

But all six lawyers who spoke said a district court– which would theoretically consolidate Tompkins County cases into a centralized and streamlined court system — is the best fix for a court system they said is flawed.

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 county legislatures about potential changes and improvements to the courts.

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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.