Want to be a village or town judge? There's no experience needed

February 28, 2019 05:23 PM

NEW YORK (WHEC) -- If you find yourself in a local courtroom, you might be surprised to learn the judge deciding your fate likely only had one week of legal training before taking the bench.  

If you want to be a massage therapist here in New York, you need 1,000 hours of training before you can become licensed.


Cosmetologists need 300 hours of training and nail technicians are required to have 250 hours of training.

However, if you want to be a village or town justice, if you can get yourself elected, you'll just need to take a one-week training class and pass a multiple choice test before taking the bench.  

Traffic tickets have put Tom King of Manchester in front of a few different town justices.

"I mean, I did wrong, so that's the reason why I had to go…I feel like they heard my cases fairly, yea," he tells News10NBC. But King never gave a thought to the background of the judges that decided his penalties.  

News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke: "Most people assume that when you're in front of a judge, that judge has a background in the law but that's not always the case in New York state?"

Robert Tembeckjian, Commission on Judicial Conduct: "That's true…you can have a criminal trial and be sentenced to jail by a judge in a town or village court who does not have legal training." 

About two-thirds of the 2,200 elected town and village judges in the state of New York do not have a law degree, and Tembeckjian says those judges are more likely to be disciplined for their behavior behind the bench.

Seventy percent of those who've been censored or removed from the bench are village and town court judges of which 80 percent are not lawyer trained.  

Lewke: "What sort of problems do they run into behind the bench?"

Tembeckjian: "Many of the problems that we see with non-lawyer judges stem from their lack of sophistication in the law."

In our area, over the last decade, the handful of local judges without a law degree who've been in trouble with the Commission on Judicial Conduct were found to have been retaliatory, disrespectful or inconsiderate to defendants who came before them.

Those who've been removed from the bench have had more egregious issues.

Town of York Judge Walter Purtell resigned and agreed never to run for a judgeship again after failing to advise defendants of their right to counsel, failing to explain the consequences of plea deals and blocking the media from an arraignment of the daughter of a New York State Police major.  

Former Town of Manchester Judge Ericka Martin was removed from the bench after pleading guilty to criminal charges for stealing $3,000 in court funds.  

Pete Butler was a justice in the Town of Manchester for four years.

He's a retired police officer so he has legal knowledge but he does not have a law degree; he says you don't have to, to be a good judge.

"When I was a town justice, I was also driving a school bus and I was also active in the volunteer fire department in Manchester. I knew the community, I understood the community…I'd rather be tried and heard by my peers and that's how this was established," he tells News10NBC.  

Most local judges are part-time and make between $15,000-$30,000 a year. Many are retired cops like Butler but others in our area have day jobs as farmers, small business owners, and artists.

Butler wrapped up his tenure on the bench without a single complaint against him.

"People that have ties to the community understand the communities, are empathic to the needs of the community, can impart justice in a fair way without compromising the law," he says.  

Lewke: "Was there ever a time when a case was before you and you were unsure of the law or the procedure you should take moving forward?"

Pete Butler: "I've got to say, I did my homework, so I knew my court calendar before I sat on the bench."

Judge Craig Doran is the supervising judge for the judicial district that covers our seven-county region. He oversees all judges, law-trained or not.

Lewke: "I'm sure you've heard the argument that if someone has the ability to take away a freedom, they should at least be knowledgeable about the laws that give them that right."

Supervising Judge Craig Doran: "I am confident that the judges in the district, that I have the privilege of supervising, have that knowledge."  

Judge Doran says in addition to the one-week of training when a judge starts, he requires an additional 12-hours of continuing education every year.

He's also just a phone call away when any judge has a question about the law.

"I have working for me, an assistant whose sole responsibility it is to support the town and village courts, to be my liaison to those courts and she herself is a town judge," he tells News10NBC. 

Other checks and balances?

The audio of every court proceeding is recorded and can be referenced if there is an allegation of wrong-doing, town and village court finances are regularly audited by the state and there is a unified computer system where all decisions are entered so they can be accessed quickly.  

But if there's any question when you're in a town or village court that your rights have been violated, "any decision made by a local court judge is appeal-able to the next highest court," Judge Doran says.

The New York State Magistrates Association, which represents 2,200 local town and village justices across the state, issued the following statement to News10NBC:

"Communities in New York benefit from the time-honored and constitutionally-supported local justice system that provides the best service to the towns and villages outside of New York City. Local judges live and work in the communities they serve.  Their professionalism, diligence and dedication are apparent, and they take seriously their judicial roles and their duties to continually improve their knowledge of the law. They are locally-elected, highly-trained public servants who provide the greatest level of accountability to Upstate New York's diverse communities." 


Jennifer Lewke

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