New York's small-town kangaroo courts: hives of abusive unchecked authority

The New York Times has an excellent investigative piece on the small-town judges of New York State. These judges are elected to office, need no legal training, have no oversight (many don't even keep court records), and have the power to imprison people for up to two years (and some accused have been kept in jail for many more years, waiting for a judge to call their cases), and collect millions in (unaudited) fines and penalties. The system is a shambles, and there have been calls for reform since the 1920s, with no movement to do anything about it, despite racist remarks, blatant violations of law, pursuit of personal vendettas from the bench and other grave misconduct. Judges send abused women back to their spouses ("Every woman needs a good pounding every now and then," quipped Donald R. Roberts, a former state trooper, now a judge in Malone, NY), lock up children, deny accused counsel, find accused guilty without a trial or a plea.

Reading this piece, you get the sense that the reporters struggled to winnow down the list of horrific abuses to fit the space -- the litany of absolutely nightmarish judicial behavior goes on and on and on and on.

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 dog's running loose, he threatened to jail her and ordered the dog killed...

In the Catskills, Stanley Yusko routinely jailed people awaiting trial for longer than the law allows -- in one case for 64 days because he thought the defendant had information about vandalism at the justice's own home, said state officials, who removed him as Coxsackie village justice in 1995. Mr. Yusko was not even supposed to be a justice; he had actually failed the true-or-false test...

In Mount Kisco, people who asked for the court's sympathy were treated to sarcasm: Justice Joseph J. Cerbone would pull out a nine-inch violin and threaten to play. Mr. Cerbone phoned one woman and talked her out of pressing abuse charges against the son of former clients, state records show. But it took eight years, and evidence that he had taken money from an escrow account, before the State Court of Appeals removed him in 2004 after a quarter-century in office.

The commission twice disciplined the town justice, Paul F. Bender of Marion, for deriding women in abuse cases. Arraigning one man on assault charges, he asked the police investigator whether the case was "just a Saturday night brawl where he smacks her and she wants him back in the morning..."

In 11 years as justice in Dannemora, in the North Country, Thomas R. Buckley had his own special treatment for defendants without much money: Even if they were found not guilty, he ordered them to perform community service work to pay for their court-appointed lawyers, although defense lawyers and the district attorney had reminded him for years that the law guaranteed a lawyer at no cost.

"The only unconstitutional part," he told the commission before it removed him in 2000, "is for these freeloaders to expect a free ride."

In Tiny Courts of N.Y., Abuses of Law and Power

Update: Here's a recent update on the situation. In summary: nothing's changed (thanks, Salugod!)


  1. I am an Australian but I am not a kangaroo. Even so I wish we could come up with a different phrase to describe this kind of corrupt justice, given that it seems to be unique to the USA, among western countries anyway.

    Kangaroos are simple minded animals who like to eat, sleep and hop. They won’t bother you if you leave them alone. I know from experiment that they can hold a biscuit in one hand, but will drop it if given another biscuit to hold in the other hand.

      1. That doesn’t make it right. Michael Smith is correct in pointing out that the term is a negative stereotype.

  2. It’s a really interesting article. However, it’s from 2006…anyone know if this issue got followed up?

  3. Essentially, nothing has changed. The abuses of power by justices upstate has been eclipsed by the abuses of power and corruption by the state legislature. Google “Hiram Montserrate,” if you want to get a sense of the picture. The political system in New York state is at a standstill, and we needed “a bulldozer,” as former Governor Eliot Spitzer called himself.

    There are many many reasons why Spitzer was a tragic and disappointing figure.

  4. So the (paleo) conservatives rightly see federal abuses of power, the non-democratic nature of large scale government, the fact that highly concentrated is a vulnerable target to those who wish to corrupt the government, behold the countless abuses committed by governmental organizations too big to be held accountable to anyone, and they call for more and more power to be delegated to the state and local levels.

    Liberals see officials on the local and state levels running their private fiefdoms, passing racist and discriminatory laws, being totally controlled by moneyed interests rich enough to buy a legislature, and holding backwards beliefs and claim that more power should be concentrated at the federal level, where more enlightened social norms can overcome them.

    They are both right, and both wrong.

    This sort of thing happens all over the country, on so many levels – not as egregious as this maybe, but we have “leave the constitution at the door” state family courts, cops who literally get away with rape and murder, and districts that count on “asset forfeiture” to pay the bills.

    But the Federal government that we hope will reign them in is itself hopelessly corrupt, cronyistic, opaque, and abusive – even after a chief executive who runs on a “hope and change” reformist platform.

    The solution, once humanity actually evolves to that points, is to recognize that any form of delivering necessary social services and protections that relies on an enforced monopoly and the threat of force is both fundamentally immoral and hugely less effective than people acting from their own free will in harmony. It will eventually fail at the job it was designed to do, and in so doing will usually create all kinds of fallout and damage.

    Why do the police have an enforced monopoly on providing their services, no matter what the citizens of the communities they “serve” feel? Why do the courts have an entrenched monopoly on their dispute resolution services, with a system so entrenched that even if all the judges were voted out and the legislature spent a year rewriting things things, would still have the same systemic underpinnings?

    Afghan herders being locked up for years in Guantanamo? Upstate new yorkers too poor to afford a lawyer being rung out threw a sham “justice” system? It’s all the same.

    What if different communities were free to have fundamentally different ideas of what “justice” was, so that some could focus on rehabilitation, some could focus on restitution to victims, some could focus on economic exile, and others could focus on punishment (which is now 99% of the focus). Wouldn’t that be a much better way of dealing with these issues?

    The fight against institutionalized violence is the ultimate struggle of our era, and of all eras. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from the churches, the corporations, groups of people, or the state.

    Violence is no more appropriate a default behaviour in the court system than it is in the playground. We, as a species, need to grow up.

  5. …and that’s just New York. One can scarcely imagine how rampant this issue is among the rest of the nation (or world).

  6. The situation is pretty much identical here in Ontario. We call’em “Justices of the Peace” but they also require no legal training and are, despite their ability to jail people, mostly just a bunch of political hacks who got the jobs as patronage rewards from whatever party was in power when they were appointed.

    The only difference between here and New York is that it’s essentially illegal to report on their antics as that would “bring the administration of justice into disrepute”. In a similar manner it’s illegal to report on conditions in the prison system here (unless you can quote from a government study) as that would “impugn the Crown”.

    1. Though I am also pretty jaded when it comes to our justice system up here in Ontario, the situation isn’t nearly as terrible as it is in New York. Justices of the peace in Canada are required to hold at least a university degree. So we don’t have the issue of justices having only a grade school or high school education, as the article states judges in new york sometimes have. We do have some issues with patronage as any system of appointment will have, but isn’t nearly as politicized as some would think. the selection committee is made up of judges, senior justices of the peace, and appointees appointed by the attorney general. The judicial members outnumber the non judicial members. These appointees also have limited terms. Justices are required to record all official communications and all proceedings in full, and all fines are fully audited. We here in Ontario have a functioning ombudsmans system, and we have a functioning appeals system and we have a functioning judicial review committee. I could go on and on. We may have our legal shortcomings up here, but our system actually runs about as fairly as is practicable in the real world. I’m actually pretty proud of what we have in comparison to any other court system I’ve known of. I do wish the police had a bit more oversite though…

  7. Sounds like West Virginia when I lived there, except in WVA the Judge’s brother is the Chief of Police.

  8. My dad bought a nice bit of land in the catskills. 5 acres, wooded, bordered by a river. Nice land. He built a lean-to and we camped there every weekend in the summer. He was a bit loud, an annoying neighbor, but never received a noise complaint or disturbing the peace or anything. My dad thinks the local judge had wanted the land, but didn’t know it was for sale. It was bordering his property.

    First, they changed the law to prohibit unlicensed permanant structures (the lean-to, made of logs, rope, and tarp) they then put my dad on trial, sent him notice. Then they changed the trial date without notifying him, and put a lien on the property. We don’t go camping anymore.

  9. I think kangaroo court is a great term for judicial malfeasance and incompetence what with the jumping and the punching: ‘This whole damn courtroom is out of order!!’

    But a negative stereotype??? Of. . .the kangaroos? The kangaroos don’t care!! you Turkeys! Weasels! Wolves in sheeps clothing! Only people care. The ‘roos blissfully go about their business as Nature intended. . .Humans on the other hand. . .

  10. >In Mount Kisco, people who asked for the court’s sympathy
    >were treated to sarcasm: Justice Joseph J. Cerbone would
    >pull out a nine-inch violin and threaten to play.

    It may be horribly unfair and undemocratic, but I don’t care what you guys say: that is *hilarious*.

  11. As a lifetime resident of the deep south, where according to movies, TV, and the daily news, we’re all wife-beatin’, incestuous, drunken bigots, may I say that this shocking story about the shambles that is part of the justice system of that paradigm of political correctness, New York, is very much entertaining…

    1. @bbaldie

      I see your point, but I think you’re confusing New York City vs. New York State. I don’t think anybody thinks that New York State is a paragon of political correctness. I lived in both. Out away from the glow of the city, it’s generally very rural, except around places like Syracuse or Buffalo, which have the same kind of depressed industry feel that my birthplace, western PA, has.

  12. Where I live in New York, our two local judges are a school bus driver and a carpenter. I brought a noise complaint against a rock band that lives next door to me and one of the previous judges, who was female, spent the whole time flirting with the leader of the band before dismissing the case.

  13. Ghede,

    stories like that make my blood boil. It happens all over the country.

    Reminds me of the story of the guy who owned a ranch that some FBI or DEA agent liked. They said he had a marijuana growing facility there so the raided it, killing the owner in the process, and seizing the property through asset forfeiture. There was no marijuana, so the case was dismissed. But the property was still forfeited and sold at auction where the agent bought it for a song.

    U-S-A U-S-A!

  14. First, Kangaroo Court. Americanism, not in reference to anything Australian. Just leaping.

    Second, I find the constant harping on “THEY’RE NOT EVEN LAWYERS!” in the article to be kind of ridiculous. That’s kind of the point. That’s why they’re paid less than $900 a year. Not that it’s a good structure or a good idea, and they should probably have less power, but cheap, expedient, common-sense justice is what these guys are THERE for.

    Third, the mechanism for solving this problem already exists: these goofballs are elected, or appointed by people who are. I know no one votes in local elections, but this is part of why local elections are important. These people don’t have to put up with this, they choose to put up with this. Don’t vote, and you pretty much get what you deserve — in this case, idiot justices. Where’s the local news stories? Where’s the angry town hall meetings? Where’s the local paper’s coverage (I suppose the NYT sort of counts, but every pondunk has their own TV news station and newspaper by this point)? Local problems demand local solutions. Start paying attention to the people with power over your life.

    1. “First, Kangaroo Court. Americanism, not in reference to anything Australian. Just leaping.”

      Thank you for that info!

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