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!)