This sounds like a poorly thought out plot element from a bad movie:
Nearly three-quarters of the judges are not lawyers, and many â€” truck drivers, sewer workers or laborers â€” have scant grasp of the most basic legal principles. Some never got through high school, and at least one went no further than grade school.
But serious things happen in these little rooms all over New York State. People have been sent to jail without a guilty plea or a trial, or tossed from their homes without a proper proceeding. In violation of the law, defendants have been refused lawyers, or sentenced to weeks in jail because they cannot pay a fine. Frightened women have been denied protection from abuse.
These are New Yorkâ€™s town and village courts, or justice courts, as the 1,250 of them are widely known. In the public imagination, they are quaint holdovers from a bygone era, handling nothing weightier than traffic tickets and small claims. They get a roll of the eyes from lawyers who amuse one another with tales of incompetent small-town justices.
A woman in Malone, N.Y., was not amused. A mother of four, she went to court in that North Country village seeking an order of protection against her husband, who the police said had choked her, kicked her in the stomach and threatened to kill her. The justice, Donald R. Roberts, a former state trooper with a high school diploma, not only refused, according to state officials, but later told the court clerk, â€œEvery woman needs a good pounding every now and then.â€
A black soldier charged in a bar fight near Fort Drum became alarmed when his accuser described him in court as â€œthat colored man.â€ But the village justice, Charles A. Pennington, a boat hauler and a high school graduate, denied his objections and later convicted him. â€œYou know,â€ the justice said, â€œI could understand if he would have called you a Negro, or he had called you a nigger.â€
And several people in the small town of Dannemora were intimidated by their longtime justice, Thomas R. Buckley, a phone-company repairman who cursed at defendants and jailed them without bail or a trial, state disciplinary officials found. Feuding with a neighbor over her dogâ€™s running loose, he threatened to jail her and ordered the dog killed.
â€œI just follow my own common sense,â€ Mr. Buckley, in an interview, said of his 13 years on the bench. â€œAnd the hell with the law.â€