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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Summer 2006

The Courts Closest to the People: The Town & Village Courts

Everyone’s heard of doctors being on call 24 hours a day, but judges? Town of DeWitt Justice David S. Gideon provides a glimpse into New York’s town & village courts, which exist throughout the state except in New York City.

Hon. David Gideon
Hon. David Gideon
FAR OUTNUMBERING THE OTHER courts of the Unified Court System (UCS), the 1,260 town and village courts throughout New York convene on a regular basis to adjudicate a myriad of matters, both criminal and civil. Representing two-thirds of all sitting judges in the state, these approximately 2,200 justices — lawyers and nonlawyers — collected almost $176 million in fines and fees in 2004, which were distributed to the state, their respective counties and local municipalities.

Long before the existence of the courts of the present-day court system, the existence of the town and village justice, or magistrate, in New York finds its origins during the Dutch and English rule of the 1600’s. In colonial New York, justices of the peace were landowners who were appointed for the trial of small causes.

Today’s town and village tribunals reflect relatively recent codification following a lengthy period of existence under somewhat murky rules that led to conflicting results. Under Article VI, Section 17, of the New York State Constitution, effective Sept.1, 1962, the state legislature is charged with the power to regulate the town and village courts, specifying the number of judges as well as their classifications and duties. Justices must be chosen by the electors of the town or village for four-year terms. There is no term limit, and town and village justices are exempt from the Section 25 provision that mandates retirement at age 70 for other judges.* Town and village courts have original jurisdiction over misdemeanors, violations, traffic infractions, regular and small claims civil matters not in excess of $3,000, summary proceedings, local laws and animal cases (involving, e.g., animal cruelty, licensing and leash laws). They have preliminary jurisdiction over felony matters for arraignment and preliminary hearing purposes, as well as limited Family Court jurisdiction when Family Court is not in session.

Unlike other UCS courts, there is no constitutional requirement that a town or village justice be admitted to the practice of law in New York. In fact, as of this writing, only approximately 690 are lawyers. New York is not unique in this respect; several other states also have nonlawyer justices. Also unlike other UCS judges (sometimes referred to as “state-paid” judges, some of whom started out as town or village justices), compensation is set annually by the respective town or village board and paid by the locality.

The existence of the town and village justice, or magistrate, in New York finds its origins during the Dutch and English rule of the 1600’s.
All town and village justice positions are part-time, some justices serve in more than one position, and many justices have other jobs. Caseloads vary widely, with some equal to those of busy city courts.

Pursuant to Town Law Section 20, each town has two justices; by referendum of the voters, that number may be increased to four. Likewise, under Village Law Section 3-301, a village has at least one elected justice, and as many as three by permissive referendum of the voters. In the event that the village has only one justice, there is also an acting justice appointed on an annual basis who serves when requested by the village justice or in the absence or inability of that justice to serve.

While localities are not mandated to provide facilities for justice courts, nevertheless, with very limited exceptions, town and village justices must hold court within the geographic boundaries of their municipality. In days gone by, it was not unusual to find these courts being held in the justice’s home, farm or business. Today, largely through the efforts of the Office of Court Administration (OCA), they convene only in public places, providing a safer and more open and dignified forum for litigants.

Unfortunately, largely due to the labor costs involved in courtroom security — considered a local expense — the majority of these courts are not as well equipped from a security standpoint as other courts. Efforts are underway by OCA to address these concerns.

All town and village justices must attend 12 hours of judicial education annually. Upon first assuming office, nonlawyer justices are required to attend a six-day training course. Like other judges, town and village justices are required to tour holding, juvenile-holding and jail facilities within the county where they sit, once every term.

Although the position is part-time, a town or village justice is “on call” 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, often being called in for an arraignment in the middle of the night.

Under often less than optimal working conditions, with relatively low compensation and “on-call” status, the town and village justices of New York are dedicated public servants who administer justice with feeling for the community that they serve.

*Retired justices of the Supreme Court may be “certificated” to serve a maximum of three two-year terms once they reach the age of 70.

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