This really sucks.
Some of you may remember the amazing, harrowing, award-winning New York Times series on so-called New York “justice courts,” small local courts overseen by small local men with little to no legal training, empowered to mete out decisions as they see fit (at times even having power over people facing jail time). The litany of racism, croneyism and ignorance in the Times‘ series is terrifying, conjuring all the small-town nightmares of justice gone wrong, of men “who don’t need a college education to know what’s right” making serious decisions based on whatever mix of the Bible, John Ford and football-coach speak comprises their narrow, ossified ethical sensibilities.
You may think I’m taking all of this a little too personally. Well, I actually had firsthand experience of the “justice court” system (what an absurd fucking term, btw) a couple years ago…
It was awful. We were “city people” in the country, and the “judge” knew our opponents’ parents and referred multiple times to a shared personal history. He was also unable to understand some fairly basic points of science, and became really surly when further explanations were attempted, belittling points of fact with gruff “that’s not how we do it ’round here” evasions. On top of the courtroom experience itself, the process was murky and communication with the court was bafflingly obscure, causing us to show up when the court was closed, twice (having driven for two hours). In the end I think we lost our complaint… I say “think” because no one really sent us a final decision, and a year later, we finally got someone on the phone who was “fairly certain” the case had been closed. Awesome!
Well, it looks like not much is going to change. The aforementioned 2006 Times series caused such a stir that Albany set up a state commission with an eye to reforming a 100-year-old system that involves some 1,500 local justices. On top of some band-aid changes at the time (word for word records of proceedings, an extra week of training), a new bill before the state legislature would give defendants facing jail time the right to request a justice with a law degree (already a compromise from the original bill which would have had all justices require a law degree). It would seem, though, that none of this going to happen. Sadly, the bill is facing opposition from the State Magistrates Association (the lobby group for local justices) and from the Office Court of Administration (the very office from whence the reform ideas came), who cite logistical concerns. All of which adds up to a politically touchy item that likely won’t pass as is.
Which means you should just stay the hell out of smalltown New York.