Justice Court Reforms Announced
Sweeping changes to provide increased support and assistance to New York’s town and village justice courts were announced Nov. 21 by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman. With the release of the “Action Plan for the Justice Courts,” the court system unveiled a comprehensive plan to enhance the efficiency, uniformity and effectiveness of the more than 1,200 justice courts located throughout the state.
The justice courts are constitutionally part of the New York State Unified Court System (UCS), with both civil and criminal jurisdiction (see Benchmarks, Summer 2006). Their criminal jurisdiction parallels that of the New York City Criminal Court, the City Courts outside New York City and the Long Island District Courts, i.e., it ranges from the most minor violations to arraignment of the most serious felonies. Local, county and state budgets all look to these courts, which, in the last fiscal year, collected over $210 million for them in fines, fees and surcharges.
Unlike other state trial courts, however, the justice courts are locally funded and administered and have operated largely outside the oversight of the UCS and the Office of Court Administration (OCA). No verbatim recording of justice court proceedings is required, and they are the only courts whose judges need not be lawyers. Indeed, close to 75 percent of the nearly 2,000 town and village justices are not lawyers.
Of the six million new cases filed annually in New York’s courts, two million alone are initiated or adjudicated in the justice courts,” Chief Judge Kaye said. “New Yorkers rely heavily on our local courts to resolve hundreds of thousands of civil and criminal cases a year. These courts must be capable of providing the same high standard of justice the public expects from every court in New York — one in which judges and personnel are highly trained and knowledgeable, litigants are treated fairly, technology is used to full advantage, and court facilities meet the most stringent protocols for security.”
The action plan represents a new partnership between the state judiciary and the justice courts, which trace back to New York’s first tribunals, said Chief Administrative Judge Lippman. “While respecting their historical and constitutional autonomy, we recognize the vital importance of ensuring a consistent standard of justice throughout all New York courts.”
Under the plan, OCA will provide enhanced support in four areas: court operations and administration; auditing and financial control; education and training; and court security. Among the plan’s specific measures are:
- mandating recording of justice court proceedings
- appointing district supervising judges for justice courts
- ensuring assignment of indigent defense counsel (and coordinating terms of different justice courts so counsel is available)
- increasing initial training for nonlawyer judges from one to seven weeks (in class and at home)
- creating year-round training center for judges and clerks
- reforming financial control practices and ensuring fiscal accountability (e.g., requiring localities to submit annual audits to OCA)
- improving facilities and ensuring adequate security protocols
- providing technology and equipment.
The judiciary’s 2007-2008 budget request includes $10 million to begin implementation of the plan.
The action plan was developed under the direction of Lawrence Marks, Administrative Director of OCA, and Ronald Younkins, OCA’s Chief of Operations, with the assistance of a justice court advisory board and in collaboration with the State Comptroller’s Office and other state and local officials. The advisory group included town and village justices and court clerks.
The plan is on-line at www.nycourts.gov/publications.
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