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.
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.
|Hon. David Gideon
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.
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.
|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.
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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