\\ DUH// Ever wonder why being called a “315-er” is so insulting? Well, we do have our share of trailer trash (and some of them don’t even live in trailers!) and lots of apples and grapes and potatoes and things, but I think what caps the phrase is what happens when a few of the natives get themselves some edjumication and then are turned loose in the Justice Courts…
…which I know about firsthand, since I habitually and shamelessly violate the rights of The People of the State of New York by driving through their neighborhoods while being short. In truth, short stature is terribly inconvenient, but it’s not a crime — not as long as your doctor writes you a medical exemption, that is, which you handily produce for Officer Friendly upon demand. But what if you can’t find it, despite nervously rummaging through all the junk in your car that you now wish you had cleaned out yesterday? No matter, as long you “timely produce” a replacement to the Court, who will then dismiss the ticket — or so says Officer Friendly. In fact, two of the Courts did just that, and one even apologized for it having gotten that far (but that was in Monroe County)…
…except that’s not how it works in one Wayne County town court, where a lawfully written medical exemption means nothing, even if produced on the very same day that Officer Friendly produced his ticket. Law? That judge don’t need no stinkin’ law! All he needed was an overwhelmingly ignorant misinterpretation of VTL 1229 subsection 5 and the assistance of a churlish and plethoric prosecutor to meritriciously achieve justice for the duly offended People…and he did this before I even walked into the courthouse……because when I got there, I discovered I was guilty of two crimes — being short, and (worse) wasting the Court’s time with a pro se defense. NY VTL 1229c-7 be damned, I was doomed to be fined, even if the prosecutor had to lie about the evidence and the presiding justice had to create his own rogue law, which is exactly what they did — after, of course, after they discussed ex parte precisely how it should be done.
Was I surprised to find out that this judge is not a lawyer? And that his “legal training” consists of an associate’s degree in accounting that he got 48 years ago from some farm school out in Cobleskill? and that the only courtroom experience he has is his own? but has been sitting on a bench, making “legal” decisions that affect people’s lives for 27 years? and STILL didn’t understand VTL 1229c-5 until I filed a motion (with case law citations and sworn affidavits appended thereto) that explained it to him??? Yeah, I was surprised all right, even more so when I found out that 72% of town justices statewide, at last count (2012) of the NY Magistrates Association) are making “lawful” decisions with a similar lack of legal training and experience. Where I come from (which is a neighboring state, not another planet), this is called “practicing law without a license” and if you try it you will get arrested, jailed, and fined. Wow, talk about Wayne County: Land of Stupid…
… but this isn’t just a Wayne County thing. In each town or village in this State, about 1277 of them, there is a local “Justice Court” where you, too, can practice law without a license. If collecting unemployment, slinging hamburgers, working the farm, or sitting in a cube at Xerox has got you down and you are 18 or over, all you need are enough friends to vote for you and not the other guy. Or, forget all that and just find A Very Important Person to recommend you for an appointment. Then, you attend the next training course given by the New York State Unified Court System Office of Court Administration (OCA), where you spend all of 8 DAYS hearing all you need to hear about holding court. After that they send you home with a “certification to assume the bench,” which, once filed in accordance with UJCA Section 105 (probably the only law you’ll ever want to know about, besides Section 77b, of course) entitles YOU to a courtroom of your very own! Now’s the time to buy yourself a clean T-shirt (R U Diggin It?) or, if you really take yourself seriously, a black robe–the one you (or one of your kids) rolled up and stuck in a closet after graduating from high school a few years ago will do until you can bill the taxpayers for a nicer one…
…Finally! After working so hard for 8 DAYS (well, more like 7-1/2, really) and filing your official “I-Went-To-Judge-School-And-All-I-Got-Was-This-Lousy-Certificate” certificate (suitable for framing) — voila! You’re a judge! presiding over your very own courtroom! where, clad in The Honorable Finery of Your Choice, you spend maybe 4-5 days a month adjudicating the local miscreants, most of whom are supplied to you by Officer Friendly, the rest being deadbeats who don’t pay their rent or who otherwise ripped off some law-abiding village resident to the tune of $3000 or less ($5000 or less for the townies). After annoying them all, plaintiff and defendant alike, with your 8-day allocation of judicial wisdom, they leave the courthouse one by one, the traffic violators nursing their wounded wallets and the civil litigants grumbling about how the opposing party got off way too easy — but it’s all good, because it’s your courtroom! where everyone calls you “Your Honor”! and stands up when you enter! and does whatever you tell them! and if the defendant pro se gets on Your Honorable Nerves, you can do things like roll up several pages of NY VTL 1229c and shake them at her while bellowing, “This is criminal court! You’re a criminal now!”
Well, there are *some* responsibilities that come with the job. Like, you have to take “advanced training” once a year. It’s really no big deal because from what I can find, it’s only 12 HOURS a year… 6 of which can be done from home…and the taxpayers pay for it all (that’s you and me, folks), including giving YOU a nice big chunk o’ change to reward you for missing that beer-drinking, deer-hunting weekend or putting off til next month that downstate city shopping venture with your BFFs…while you stay home, order pizza, and spend a few hours reading legal stuff and drinking coffee to stay awake.
Hopefully some of this training might include NY VTL 1229c, especially subsection 5. Maybe I’ll volunteer to teach that class. I mean, it’s not exactly rocket science. I understood it after reading it twice — once to figure it out and a second time to make sure I didn’t miss anything — which took maybe all of 90 seconds. However, it apparently befuddled His Dumb-Ass Honor for 27 years, despite all that updated OCA training and a mentoring judge holding his hand…
Anyhow, Your Honor should also probably join this: http://nysmagassoc.homestead.com (see image, below, right) but they’re a fun group — the 2013 conference is at Lake Placid, baby! And you get a license plate with “SMA” on it, which guarantees you can drive as fast and crazy as you want without ever getting a ticket — that is, unless you are driving drunk and get into an accident. In that case, if you smack into another car so hard that the driver’s glasses “fly off her face” and “the bolts securing [your] license plate” get stuck in her car, you”ll get a handful of tickets, but who cares — while you recover from Your Honorable Hangover, the DA bumps everything down to a single Class A misdemeanor, for which you endure The Honorable Slap on the Wrist, but — you’re still a judge! and no one even thought of rolling up any legal papers to shake at you while bellowing “You’re a criminal now!”
Even if you do it again 3 years later, you won’t get fired or anything. They’ll put you on paid (!!) leave while the Judicial Commission scratches its head and wonders what to do with you, and that can take months:
Bummer, dude. Oh, not for Justice Apple — it’s a bummer for you and me, who are paying for his vaca– , I mean “leave.” Especially since, when this case rolled around the Judicial Commission’s agenda for a second time, they extended his paid leave because
“The commission believes that public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary … would be undermined were Judge Apple to continue to exercise the power of judicial office in one court while contemporaneously defending against two felony charges pending against him in other courts.”
Whoa, back the truck up! “Public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary” is indeed tested whenever a judge commits a crime, but this member of the public would further opine that said “confidence” seriously lessens whenever *any* court official disregards the law, including when a prosecutor favors some judge by dumbing down the multiple charges arising from his drunk-driving accident into a single, much less serious charge that ignores the personal injuries and property damages he caused. Furthermore, and again IMHO, any remaining judicial “integrity” goes right down the toilet when one realizes that this kind of practice is not just acceptable, it is welcomed in up to 72% of the town and village courts, where presiding justices are seated after only 8 days of “legal” training and are never required to obtain even half of a basic law school education, which thereby requires a heavy reliance upon the prosecutor’s (in)discretion —
— which is exactly how one Wayne County Justice Court bypassed a valid subsection 7 defense to issue a guilty verdict in a harmless seat belt case. Even when His Honorably Belated Examination of the Evidence proved its legal firmus (thereby exposing the lies inherent in said “discretion”), the Court upheld the verdict by concocting an extralegal “height requirement” from His Honorable But Incredibly Ridiculous And Therefore Negligent Misinterpretation of VTL 1229c-5…
…which, according to that same Commission, preserves rather than violates the “integrity of the court” (and I have their letter to prove it), so go figure, Mr. Tembeckjian, and please let me know what drugs they were on when they determined *that* [insert eye roll here]…
But I digress.
So, what does the Commission think happens to “public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary” when said judge avoids all this felony stuff and pleads “I’m-guilty-but-only-because-I’m-sick” so he can go to “treatment court”?
Easy one! It depends on just WHO has to pay for the treatment (and all that leave time) required for said sick party to recover.
I’m not the first one or even the only one who thinks the justice courts need reform. After the New York Times‘s “Broken Bench” series appeared in 2006, the problem was out in the open. So, a couple of REAL judges — you know, the ones who actually went to law school? so they could practice law? and thus earn the right to become a judge? — a couple of these REAL judges from the Unified Court System responded to the Times‘s exposé with An Action Plan for the Justice Courts (2006) that used words like “overhaul” and “extended training,” but that was pretty much ignored. So, they wrote another, stronger report 2 years later that says things like “The current array of justice courts is not the result of any rational assessment of state or local needs” and “The proliferation of justice courts wastes state, county, and local resources,” which, translated into you-and-me language, means something like “there’s far too many of these things, and they don’t accomplish much besides wasting taxpayer dollars.” Wow, eh? Then they rocked the world of the wannabe’s by suggesting that candidates be at least 25 years old, have 2 years of college, and spend TWO WHOLE WEEKS in training plus more time in home study. And if that wasn’t trouble enough, they sought to revamp the testing procedure to eliminate vacuous questions like this one (even though I know from experience that there is at least one Wayne County justice with a 2-year, horse-college accounting degree, 6 days of OCA training (which is all that was required for The Honorable Class of ’86), and 27 years on the bench who still doesn’t know the answer):
“True or False: Litigants who appear in court must be treated with respect.
(because it is utterly impossible for His Dubious Honor to treat litigants with respect as long as his courtroom is equipped with a “side room,” just sayin’).
Unfortunately, I can’t find where this report, which sits on the Unified Court System website collecting its cyber-equivalent of dust, has had much effect. It seems that once the furor over “Broken Benches” dissipated, so did the impetus to improve the justice courts. Oh, sure, the Two-Year Plan Update (2008) adopted lots of the Action Plan‘s recommendations, including upping the 8 days of training to 7 weeks:
but this training is hardly “pre-bench” when certifications are issued to all “newly elected or appointed” candidates after only 8 days of education, allowing them to practice law before completing anything “advanced” (see blogpost regarding Section 17.2). Don’t get me wrong, 7 weeks of study, whether it is pre-bench or learned on the job, is a definite improvement over 8 days, but it is still woefully deficient when compared to the education one needs just to begin practicing law in this state.
What is more obvious are the rather innocuous suggestions adopted from the Action Plan. This is why you can pay your traffic fine with a credit card — big deal, I paid mine with a check (which is what prompted all that judicial rolled-up paper-shaking and epithet-bellowing) — and all court proceedings are supposed to be mechanically recorded — you know, to prevent that transcript-editing thing (but nobody out here records anything, or so says Someone Important at the local appeals court, despite what the Judicial Commission tells me and not to mention Part 30.1 of the Rules of the Chief Administrative Judge)……Regretfully, the significant and necessary changes, the ones that have at least a fighting chance of legitimizing the town and village courts and (hopefully) seating justices who can read, interpret, and properly apply the law, including but not limited to Rules, Part 30.1 (and VTL 1229c!) have outgrown both the Action Plan and its Update and beg new scrutiny from the administrative judges. Meanwhile, the tainted, erratic, hit-or-miss justice court decisions continue to be meted out, thus ensuring that the sequential use of the words “justice” and “court” remain not only contradictio in terminis but also idem eadem idem to nothing more than kangaroo court. And we all know what the Supreme Court said about THAT (well, if you don’t, then read the caption on the picture over there and you will).
So, until the OCA changes things or until I get a height transplant (whichever comes first), I will continue to carry with me THREE lawfully written notes from my doctor (two of them notarized), each written specifically for His Dimwitted Honor, plus a copy of this essay stapled to the front. If nothing else, it will keep Officer Friendly occupied while (s)he runs your license and registration check, and if you look in your rear-view mirror you might see a smile when (s)he gets to the NY VTL 1229c-5 part (or maybe the shaking-the-rolled-up-papers part), in which case the officer will send you on your ticketless way with a stern warning to drive carefully, all the while trying not to laugh.
At least, that’s what happened to me a couple of Tuesdays ago, when I got stopped. But then I got stopped again this past Tuesday, January 22nd, for the third time this year, 2013, in beautiful not-so-downtown Wayne County, and Officer P****e was not laughing. He actually got into my car, adjusted the seat belt himself, and witnessed how it STILL went across my neck, posing a definite safety hazard and confirming everything my doctor wrote. Sheesh, what’s a cop to do? So many quotas, but not enough seat belt violators to earn even a set of jumper cables, much less the iPad on p. 24 of the rewards catalog that his kid is pestering him for. . .
In any event, I have no doubt that I will eventually wind up in another justice court, but I do hope that occurs well after some Very Important Person is subjected to the same kind of treatment that you and I receive therein. I suspect that would do more to improve this oxymoronic institution than all the Action Plans and Updates in the world.