Monday, September 25, 2006

What's Due Process?

I apologize for the hiatus, as I was sending applications out for my dream jobs last week.

I caught wind of this article [free registration required] in the New York Times today, discussing New York's town and village courts. They're ruled over by "judges," who in fact, have no legal training, and many only have high school diplomas. Going along with my earlier speech about how it might be nice to not need lawyers for everything, I think this is a reason that we do need lawyers for some things.

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.

“I just follow my own common sense,” Mr. Buckley, in an interview, said of his 13 years on the bench. “And the hell with the law.”

This literally terrifies me, but it reminds me of a story my dad told me. When he was in law school in Arkansas, third years were required to clerk with either a lawyer or a city. His friend decided that, in order to gain the most litigation experience possible, he should be a public defender for night court in Boon County, Arkansas. To give you an idea of their court system, they only had volunteer public defenders. And no prosecutor. The judge acted as both judge and prosecutor.

As my dad's friend was grilling a police officer in a DWI case, the judge apparently took umbrage at his continued persistence. The judge then shouted, "As prosecutor, I object to that question; and, as judge, I sustain my objection!" Believe it or not, the man was found guilty.

Judging from the article, it's not just the South circa early 70's that is having problems...


Blogger Toonzie said...

I once found myself in a small town court house in Central New York in an attempt to fight a speeding ticket. In light of that experience the headline doesn't surprise me. I was still in college, knew very little about the law, and was the only person there for a traffic violation. Town Hall was about the size of my apartment and the rest of down town consisted of a church, a semetary and a gas station. I sat through a couple of hours of proceeding and it seemed like a license would be revoked or fines would be imposed without the accused (or his council if he had any)uttering a word. It certainly wasn't the due process I expected based from TV. I stuck out like a sore thumb and was petrified. By the time it got to me I was told that standard procedure for a first offense was to knock 10 off the speed and all I could do was nod in understanding.
I figured that this phenomenon was a function of being in a rural and isolated part of the state where people educated in the law are a scarce resource. I'm pretty shocked to leard that this also goes on in the wealthy towns and villages inhabited by some of New York City's greatest lawyers. In my search for an explanation all I can think of is the following: the residents of these towns for the most part aren't the people finding themselves in front of these courts; these people also have a tendency to believe that the rules don't apply to them - and thus they can justify denying other people justice?
Or am I being unnecessarily cynical?

9/25/2006 11:36 PM  

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