NY State Bar Association wants to keep non-lawyers from becoming judges

June 13, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) has declared its stance in favor of a significant overhaul of the state’s legal system and its taking aim, among other things, at a common practice in Upstate New York that allows non-lawyers to become judges.

The association would also like to see the establishment of district courts, and a revolutionary revamp of sentencing procedures.

“It is necessary for our legal system to be constantly re-evaluated,” said Richard Lewis, president of the New York State Bar Association. “We need to continue to adapt to our changing society and improve our system so that all stakeholders, plaintiffs’ attorneys, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and of course, the parties can achieve justice.”

Among the recommendations put forth is a push for law-degree holders with at least five years of practice as the only eligible candidates for town and village justices. This move would gradually phase out non-lawyer justices at the expiration of their four-year terms.

In New York, there has been a long-standing tradition that allows non-lawyers to serve as justices in the state’s town and village courts, commonly referred to as “Justice Courts”. The majority of the state, excluding New York City and other populous regions, is served by these courts.

The New York State Constitution and Judiciary Law do not require town or village justices to be attorneys, although they must meet other requirements, such as being a resident of the town or village. However, they are required to complete a certification course administered by the New York State Office of Justice Court Support before they can assume their duties. The course covers areas like criminal and civil procedure, evidence, and jurisdiction.

Non-attorney justices must also attend annual continuing judicial education programs. Despite these requirements, there have been ongoing debates about the suitability of non-attorney justices due to the complexity of the legal matters that they handle, hence the proposal by the New York State Bar Association to eliminate non-lawyer judges.

The association proposes the consolidation of town and village courts into district courts. To establish such courts, requests would need to be sent from county governments to the state Legislature. The location of these courts, featuring longer operating hours and full-time staff, would be decided by county leaders.

“The justice system needs to be reformed and consolidated,” said Sherry Levin Wallach, the NYSBA’s immediate past president, who helped to form the task force. “All judges must have a legal education and at least five years of experience practicing law before taking the bench. People’s freedom, lives and livelihoods are at stake.”

The task force’s report, adopted by the association’s House of Delegates, implores the state Legislature to reform sentencing laws, enabling modifications of some criminal sentences after ten years of the inmate’s service.

Exceptions to these potential sentence changes would include convictions of sex crimes, first-degree murder, aggravated murder, kidnapping, and terrorism. Those serving life without parole would also be ineligible for sentence alterations.

“Sentencing reform will give those in prison the chance to turn their lives around and reduce the effect of mass incarceration,” said Catherine Christian and Andrew Kossover, co-chairs of the task force.

Other sentencing recommendations encompass abolishing mandatory minimum sentencing, with consent from the prosecution and court, allowing defense attorneys to accompany clients during pre-sentence interviews with the probation department, and requesting Gov. Kathy Hochul to create a commission to examine the possibility of New York doing away with indeterminate sentences.

The report also detailed a need for technological advancement in the state court system, calling for funding to help law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to maintain tech platforms and comply with new discovery laws. An electronic filing system akin to PACER, currently used in federal courts, was also recommended.


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