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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Summer 2006

Court Clerks: Unsung Heroes of the Courthouse

BY ANITA WOMACK-WEIDNER

IT’S 9:30 A.M. ON A TUESDAY MORNING IN Onondaga County Courthouse and the courtroom of Syracuse Supreme Court Justice John V. Centra is ready. Terri Fox, a court clerk who has worked in the state courts for 22 years, has made sure of that.

She has a printout of his motion schedule. The court reporter has been scheduled. The attorneys who are to appear have all been notified.

At exactly 10 a.m., Fox enters the courtroom before the judge. Court spectators and lawyers stand and wait for the judge to enter the room and take his seat. Once everyone is seated, Fox stands to the judge’s left. She then calls the cases one at a time as the judge confers with the lawyers on both sides to determine the status of their case.

Jan Piché, Court Clerk Supervisor, Monroe County Family Court
Jan Piché, Court Clerk Supervisor, Monroe County Family Court
Jan Piché, a court clerk supervisor in Monroe County Family Court, gets in at 8 a.m. that Monday, ahead of the rest of the staff. Piché has worked in Family Court for 10 years. Prior to that she worked as a court assistant in City Court for seven years. The first thing she does when she arrives at the Rochester courthouse is make sure no one has called in sick, which would require moving people around to ensure coverage in all courtrooms. It’s also Piché’s job to make sure that all judges and judicial hearing officers (JHOs) have a courtroom when they need it.

On this day, some juggling is required, as the courtroom Piché had scheduled for use by a JHO is unavailable because special audio equipment for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is being installed. Ultimately, five of the eight courtrooms will receive the same devices because Rochester has one of the largest deaf and hearing-impaired communities in the country.

Jan Piché and Terri Fox are both court clerks. But they work in different courts in different counties, so their day-to-day duties vary greatly.

“Court clerks are our unsung heroes,” said Supreme Court Justice Ann Marie Taddeo, a former Rochester Family Court judge. “It’s hard to describe how much goes on in a day, and everyone works together to make sure things run smoothly. If you’re not a cohesive group in Family Court, things just won’t work. Every so often you’ll even find a judge’s law clerk come work the counters to help out.”

After six months of being on the bench I realized how important the clerk’s job is — they keep a smooth flow of cases coming through.
SYRACUSE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE JOHN V. CENTRA
Back in Syracuse, the motion calendar ends by 11 a.m., and because there are no trials scheduled, the rest of Fox’s day is spent doing paperwork and scheduling for upcoming civil cases.

She must set up a calendar call for cases and ask lawyers to come to court in two weeks to set trial dates. Once those dates are set, she’ll arrange for a courtroom, an interpreter, if necessary, and a jury. During voir dire, she calls the names of prospective jurors. Once the trial starts, she keeps track of the exhibits, which remain in her possession until the trial is over. When the jury returns with a verdict, Fox is the one who formally asks the foreperson if a verdict has been determined.

In civil cases, verdicts are placed in a sealed envelope. It’s given to the judge to examine and ensure there are no glitches. Fox then returns the envelope to the foreperson, who reads the verdict aloud. Later, Fox makes copies of the verdict and files a minute sheet. This official record of the trial includes everything from a complete witness list to whether there were any read-back requests or video testimony. She attests to the minute sheet and attaches it to the court exhibits. Nearly everything in civil trials is available to the public unless sealed.

“When I first started in Supreme Court, I didn’t understand the complete roles of all the participants, and then one day when I started asking questions, my secretary would say: ‘That’s Terri,’” said Judge Centra. “Well, who does this? ‘That’s Terri.’ After six months of being on the bench I realized how important the clerk’s job is — they keep a smooth flow of cases coming through.”

Terri Fox, Court Clerk, Onondaga County Supreme Court
Terri Fox, Court Clerk, Onondaga County Supreme Court
On this particular day, Fox receives new paperwork from the Supreme Court clerk’s office. After processing the information, she makes calls and does scheduling. Pre-trial motions must be scheduled within 30 days. Once the trial note of issue is filed, a conference is held in 30 to 60 days. If a pending case lingers too long, it’s her job to send a follow-up letter to help get things moving.

Piché is one of five court clerk supervisors in Monroe Family Court. She supervises clerks on the court staff (except for two in the Domestic Violence Intensive Intervention Court, supervised by Carey Travis); Mary Jo Mahoney supervises clerks in the records room; Chris Broderick supervises clerks in the support intake unit; Marci Morrisey supervises clerks in the support in-court unit; and Janice Ivery supervises clerks staffing the front counter.

“There are always last minute emergencies,” said Piché. She has to arrange for last-minute court reporters and last minute changes in courtrooms. But then, there are rarely enough courtrooms. “I know every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday that I’ll have to ask for extra courtrooms unless somebody’s out,” said Piché. She looks for extra courtrooms in the building, mainly in Supreme and County Courts, and on occasion has had to ask City Court for space.

As we sit in her office and discuss her job, another court employee enters and slips her a form. Piché looks over the fingerprint report of a juvenile and explains she has to look up the name to see if he or she has an active case. If not, she holds on to the document. But when she turns to type in the name, she recognizes it and says: “I know this child is in here.”

Everyone in Family Court says working here is the most difficult, but most fulfilling job they can imagine. “We’re making the most difference here,” said Bobbi Abbott, Associate Court Clerk. “We’re dealing with the things that are the most emotional for people — their children and their money.”

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On-Line Access to Court Records Tested  2006 Law Day  Court of Appeals Decides Same-Sex Marriage & Depraved Indifference Cases  A Year As COSCA’s President  For the Record  Court Clerks:Unsung Heroes of the Courthouse  New Uncontested Divorce Packets  The Courts Closest to the People:The Town & Village Courts  City, Town & Village Resource Center  Justice Courts Action Plan  Improvements in Interpreting Services  UCS Technology Update  Report Calls for Overhaul of the Indigent Defense System  Judicial Association Spotlight  Historic New York State Courthouses and Trials  Did You Know?  Judicial Institute Highlights  JI Hosts Voter Education Symposium

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